Blackburn Rovers 0 Manchester Utd 1: Saha has cure for Carling hangover

France striker's salvation for Red Devils after misfiring Rooney relives Southend nightmare
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The Independent Football

The scoreline might look less than convincing but do not be fooled into any suspicion that United's momentum is diminished in the wake of their exit from the Carling Cup in midweek, however much of a shock it appeared to be. It was a wretched night in Blackburn, torrential rain and a gale force wind combining to create just the conditions in which slick football is almost impossible, yet United still conjured some breathtaking moments and were worthy of the three points won by Louis Saha's second-half goal.

Indeed, but for some profligate finishing from Wayne Rooney in the first half, the victory might have looked as handsome as Chelsea's earlier in the day. In any event, United remain three points clear of the pack.

Sir Alex Ferguson had demanded an assertive response from his side to the shock of losing at Southend in the Carling Cup but given that with the exception of Rooney and Ronaldo, this was an entirely different team, it was difficult to see any clear relationship between the two performances.

This was the United side that had won nine matches out of 11 to equal Ferguson's best start to a Premiership season, not one that seemed likely to have been undone even by a Freddy Eastwood wonder goal. Needless to say, it did not take long for the confidence that has clearly grown from taking Chelsea's place as early-season pace setters to leave an impression on the night, despite the most atrocious weather.

At times as driving rain swept across the stadium the surface was scarcely playable yet United still passed and moved with wonderful precision. Ostensibly, they played with only Saha as a genuine striker, yet with Rooney and Ronaldo making use of the wide areas and Giggs moving in and out of midfield, a formation that might have been written down as 4-5-1 just as often resembled 4-2-4. Always there was one attacker or another running into space; always Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick seemed to pick him out.

With Scholes, knowing which ball to select was almost a sixth sense. The extent to which United missed him last season becomes more obvious with every game. It is with his return to form that United have acquired the look of a side who will ensure Chelsea's quest to retain the title gets a proper examination.

Somehow, though, United did not score in the first half. Twice they should have and on both occasions it was Rooney who missed. Neither was a difficult chance either, although the pitch conditions probably played a part. A little over half an hour in Scholes won the ball on the left, immediately found Ronaldo with a rangy, diagonal pass and when the Portuguese winger delivered a low cross to the far post, the ball skimming across the slick grass too quickly for any defender to intervene, it seemed Rooney would make a simple conversion. Yet he seemed almost to step over the ball, any kind of firm touch eluding him.

Less than 10 minutes later, as another typically robust challenge from Scholes kept another attack alive, Saha shot, Brad Friedel saved and again Rooney had a simple opportunity to score, the ball asking to be flicked beyond the Rovers goalkeeper. Yet again he missed the target.

A penalty claim turned down when Brett Emerton nudged over Saha added to United's frustrations, resulting indirectly in a booking for Rooney when, a few moments later, the referee, Mike Riley, punished the United man for a similar offence, significantly in the centre circle.

As all of this went on Blackburn had been giving a passable impression of rabbits frozen in the headlights. They were better in the second half, presumably on the back of a stern talking to from Mark Hughes, whose philosophy has no room for any lack of assertiveness. But the goal United had threatened to score duly arrived, 19 minutes into the second half. It was a thing of brilliant execution, too, Giggs stretching himself with wonderful athleticism to reach a deep cross by the substitute John O'Shea at the far post, the same touch turning the ball back across goal for Saha to wrap a foot around it and score his eighth goal of the season.