Football: United inch closer to title on the prize

Blackburn Rovers 0 Manchester United 0
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BLACKBURN ROVERS' lavishly paid and expensively acquired squad went on the most bizarre lap of honour of the season last night. Having been castigated by their manager for being "gutless" on Saturday they gave the sort of performance which illustrated why their supporters should not be planning trips to Bescot and Blundell Park next season.

They showed pride, passion and character but, while it put the brake on Manchester United's pursuit of the title, it was too little, too late, to prevent Rovers slipping into the Nationwide League after seven seasons in the top flight.

Afterwards the Rovers' support, instead of bemoaning the way their team had cheated on them throughout the season, instead summoned them back to the pitch for a farewell acclamation. Perhaps they had realised that a team which contained only one of the side that won the title just four years ago - Jason Wilcox - was inevitably going to struggle to live up to expectations even if their collective cost, pounds 21m for last night's starters, pounds 50m for the squad, ought to have brought a better return than relegation.

Manchester United, meanwhile, have to defeat Tottenham at Old Trafford on Sunday if they are to secure their fifth title in the Premiership's seven seasons. The odds still favour them, but how Arsenal, beaten at Leeds on Tuesday, and Chelsea, who have dropped so many needless points recently, must have thought: "If only."

The same phrase may well have occupied Brian Kidd's mind as he left Ewood Park. Not "if only I'd stayed at United" - it was the right decision at that stage of his career - but "if only I'd told the players a few home truths earlier".

Having ended months of supportive words by savaging them after the weekend defeat to Nottingham Forest, he gave the bulk of that team the chance to redeem themselves. Only the injured Kevin Gallacher and Damien Duff were omitted. Whether Kidd had actually forgiven them was a moot point, but the fans clearly had, cheering every name in a vibrant pre-match build- up. Despite their parlous position, and a history of two home wins in 42 years against United, Rovers began with enthusiasm. They were soon pushed back by United's greater quality, especially on the flanks, where David Beckham and Ryan Giggs were quick to exert influence.

After Beckham had a shot deflected for a corner, and Giggs caused a measure of panic with two teasing crosses, the pair combined in the ninth minute with near-deadly effect. A deep Beckham cross from the right was met at the far post by Giggs who headed against the post. The rebound fell to Cole but Rovers managed to scramble his shot away.

A low shot from Gary Croft that was deflected for a corner lifted the siege, but it soon resumed with Dwight Yorke bringing a sharp save from John Filan with a 20-yard shot.

Gradually Rovers came into the game. With United missing Roy Keane and concentrating on width, Wilcox, Lee Carsley, and David Dunn were able to gain control of the centre. They were not, however, able to create clear chances and, with Ashley Ward unable to take advantage of the half- chances that did come his way, United, without playing well, still looked the more potent. Not that they were able to break the deadlock before the interval with Yorke and Ronny Johnsen missing opportunities.

Half-time conjured a delicious image. In one dressing-room there was Alex Ferguson, doubtless reminding his team that Rovers were not going to hand them three points on a platter. In the other there was Kidd, plotting to negate his former boss's tactical innovations and emotional exhortations.

The restart suggested the pupil had learned well. Rovers continued to hold sway and Dunn brought a leaping save from Schmeichel with a 20-yard shot after running through the heart of United's midfield. Ewood roared in response and, if you blanked out the memory of the League table, it was possible to pretend we were back in Rovers' recent golden age.

United briefly hauled their way back into the game with Filan foiling Giggs, and Carsley denying Johnsen, but Ferguson soon realised changes were needed. On came Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes.

Their introduction was swiftly rendered irrelevant as Rovers' need for a win outweighed United's preference for one and the strugglers threw men forward. Matt Jansen twice went close but it was Ward, following up a half-cleared cross from Damien Johnson, who stabbed their last chance of survival wide.

He was an inappropriate fall guy. Though short of the highest quality, Ward had never lacked heart. It is those who have the opposite mix who have let Rovers down.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Filan; Croft, Henchoz, Peacock, Davidson; Gillespie (Johnson, 80), Carsley, Dunn, Wilcox; Ward, Jansen. Substitutes not used: Davies, Duff, Broomes, Flowers (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam (May, h-t), Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, P Neville (Scholes, 75), Giggs; Yorke, Cole (Sheringham, 70). Substitutes not used: Solskjaer, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).