Football: United exploit Berg's misfortune

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The Independent Online
Blackburn Rovers 2 Manchester United 4 Just as it appeared Manchester United's attention on the European Cup was diverting them from a fully charged attempt on a third successive Premiership title, they reasserted themselves as championship contenders yesterday. Luck, it has to be said, gave them a helpful shove on their way.

After the champions had been comprehensively outplayed for all but the final seconds of the first half, the tone of the match was irretrievably altered when Blackburn's Henning Berg brought down Lee Sharpe in the area. The penalty decision, which was harsh, seemed doubly so when the Norwegian full-back was sent off.

It was a decision which incensed Blackburn's manager, Kenny Dalglish, who said he would appeal against the dismissal. 'You prefer to lose because of the ability of the opposition,' he added, 'not because of the inability of a referee.'

His United opposite number, Alex Ferguson, concurred. 'At first I thought Berg had gone across Sharpey,' he said, 'But I've seen the video and Berg got his foot to the ball first.'

Eric Cantona coolly restored parity with a penalty into the left-hand corner and against 10 men United could afford to go behind again and still win at a canter. Andrei Kanchelskis got two goals, while Mark Hughes scored the other -his first in the Premiership since the opening day of the season.

United went into this game on a sequence of three successive away defeats and the knowledge that a reverse yesterday and another against Newcastle on Saturday would leave them 13 points adrift off the top, a colossal margin when a club has a debilitating Champions' League campaign, too.

But if that was the spur there was no indication of it as United had a near negligible impact on the first half. They had the greater share of possession, but with Blackburn working ferociously most of it was acquired with nine home players behind the ball.

It was no more than Blackburn's due, therefore, when they took the lead after 13 minutes. Cantona handled on the right touchline and when Graeme Le Saux's cross entered the area Peter Schmeichel's attempt to reach it always seemed over-ambitious. The goalkeeper got there first but had to punch the ball and Paul Warhurst returned it with a deft chip of 30 yards. Steve Bruce had retreated to the goal-line but could do nothing as the shot arced into the top of the goal.

Blackburn, operating on the break, could have gone further in front with efforts from Warhurst and Alan Shearer and it appeared the champions' aplomb was evaporating when Gary Pallister misdirected a clearance and was spared an own goal only by Schmeichel's brilliant save.

As Blackburn appeared on the brink of an unbreakable hold, however, Berg, who had earlier been booked for a foul on Sharpe, was dismissed. As he disappeared down the tunnel so did Rovers' chance of repeating their win over United at Ewood last season, and the surrender of an unbeaten home League record intensified the sense of injustice.

Even so, Blackburn, who dropped Chris Sutton and Warhurst to form a back five had reason for hope when Colin Hendry restored their lead after 50 minutes with a powerful header from Le Saux's cross.

It endured barely a minute as Kanchelskis broke in from the right and after his attempt at a cross was blocked by Hendry, the winger pounced on the loose ball and hit a left-foot half-volley past Tim Flowers.

After 66 minutes it was 3-2 when Le Saux committed a crass error. The England full- back had time to clear down the left, but instead played the ball inside behind Hendryto the unmarked Hughes. The Welsh striker saw Flowers off his line and, with a deftness that is hardly his trademark, he delicately chipped over the stranded goalkeeper.

Rovers charged forward once more, and again it proved their undoing. Hendry had a header saved by Schmeichel and from the corner the ball was cleared via Sharpe to the wing-heeled Kanchelskis. No one could catch him and it was merely a question of whether he could keep his head, which he did, going round Flowers before slotting the ball through Jason Wilcox's legs into the net.

'It's a very important result for us,' Ferguson said, 'because we always find it hard here. Particularly so as we let them get off to a good start.'

Blackburn Rovers: (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Gale (Slater, 83), Hendry, Le Saux; Ripley, Atkins (Pearce, 83), Warhurst, Wilcox; Shearer, Sutton.

Substitute not used: Mimms (gk).

Manchester United: (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Keane, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Butt (McClair, 82), Ince, Sharpe; Cantona, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Gillespie, Walsh (gk).

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

More football, pages 38 and 39 (Photograph omitted)