Sir Alex Ferguson has twice spent £30m or more on a footballer and while the money lavished on Rio Ferdinand was never questioned, the sums spent on Dimitar Berbatov were met with a suspicion that amounted almost to resentment. Perhaps it was because the Bulgarian appeared a stranger in an arena where they have always relished skill but only if it is accompanied by a hefty dollop of hard work. Berbatov spent too much of last season looking back in languor.
This, however, is developing into the campaign in which Berbatov proves his worth, providing at least a scattering of the magic that was lost with Cristiano Ronaldo's departure for Madrid. When Blackburn last came to Old Trafford in February, they might have snatched a draw but for a free-kicked laced with all of Ronaldo's jaw-dropping brilliance.
Sam Allardyce's ambitions stretched no further than a point last night and however valid his tactics might have been with his squad, which has now lost 10 straight away games, infected by swine flu, they disappeared the moment Berbatov took Patrice Evra's ball into the box, turned and shot in one liquid movement.
Wayne Rooney's second, three minutes from time, was almost an irrelevance – it would not have been had Nikola Kalinic's goal at the death stood and not been ruled offside. Allardyce argued that the four minutes of stoppage time could have allowed Blackburn time to grab an equaliser but, since they had barely crossed the halfway line in the 90 that went before, this was speculation of the optimistic kind. They had come to Old Trafford to defend and though they defended well, when Berbatov struck they had no credible alternative.
"I thought it was a matter of time before we broke through," Ferguson reflected. "When Berbatov scored, we were starting to create chances and we should have scored more. But with the experience we have at Manchester United there was no need to panic. We can win games in the 93rd minute."
Whatever the quality, it was a win and one Manchester United badly needed to wash away the taste of defeat at Liverpool and to prepare themselves for next Sunday's encounter at Stamford Bridge.
Analysing the defeat at Anfield, Ferguson said that for the second successive weekend United were up against a wounded animal. The wounded animal Blackburn most resembled was a hedgehog. They curled into a ball, stuck out their spines and hoped they would not be steamrollered. Attacking such an entrenched team proved problematic for a side that has kept pace with Chelsea without any of the swagger that comes from being champions.
Michael Carrick attempted to thread the ball through the massed ranks of blue and white, Nani tried to outflank them while Gabriel Obertan, brought on for his League debut, showed he had almost unplayable pace, if little else. His miss from seven yards was perhaps the worst the Stretford End has seen in several seasons. "He was a bit nervous and he was not happy with himself at the end," said Ferguson. "But that is the reaction we are looking for."
Manchester United's other £30m footballer was not playing. Given the sustained recent criticism Ferdinand has endured, his withdrawal with a calf injury was well timed. It might be that Ferguson was hoping a man who has touched greatness as a defender would have time to reflect on the theory, that the moment a half-fit Fernando Torres muscled past him was the turning point of a glittering career. Nemanja Vidic, United's other defensive anchor, was also missing and with an understudy of Jonny Evans' quality waiting, neither man can be given guarantees.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Man of the match: Berbatov
Match rating: 8/10Reuse content