The world's greatest player, the manager's greatest squad; there will be plenty of factors to discuss if Manchester United win a title chase which might yet go the final day of the season. But Mark Hughes – boyhood Chelsea fan, a legend for both title contenders and better qualified to discuss the finale than most – provides a more prosaic explanation for United's current greatness.
Applicable to afternoons when it is blowing a gale at Ewood Park and there are only two minutes left to equalise, Hughes describes it as "fear" – of failure, of the analysis which follows it and of what the manager might have to say. (Hughes, remember, is the man who gave "hairdryer" its special place in the footballing lexicon.) Fear is "what drives these top players on," Hughes said on Saturday night.
"The consequences of not getting positive results are there for all to see and certainly at my time at the club if you were beaten or put in a poor performance there were plenty of people who would line up and criticise you. They want to win things; they are in a position where they don't accept they are ever beaten and when they are they don't say they have lost, they say they have run out of time sometimes."
There is, added Hughes, in an observation which currently seems as inappropriate to Chelsea as it is appropriate to United, "the fear of the manager, too. You always have to go back into the dressing room."
The late, late FA Cup semi-final equaliser Hughes snatched for United against Oldham 14 years shows that this characteristic is not new but rarely has it been in such abundance as now. The 90th- minute equaliser at White Hart Lane in February; two in the last 13 minutes on that difficult afternoon at Reading; the 83rd-minute winner at Goodison back in the autumn; not to mention the 87th-minute equaliser in Lyons two months ago. And Saturday's 88th-minute leveller, of course.
A man for nearly all these occasions is Carlos Tevez – "such a busy little bugger," as his manager so memorably and appositely described him a few weeks back; a player at his most active just when opponents are preparing to clock off. The goals at Tottenham (90 minutes) and Lyons (87 minutes) belonged to him, but so too the one at Anfield (43) and the strike at Old Trafford (45) which welcomed Avram Grant into management seven months ago. Saturday's strike – after he finally gave Christopher Samba the slip to head home after Paul Scholes had nodded Nani's corner towards him – was right up there with the best of them. "Tevez again late on," enthused his manager.
Ferguson was pretty busy himself during his side's 90-minute struggle to take something into this most season-defining of weeks. When Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney glitter at Old Trafford he will generally observe from his seat with the occasional paternal smile. Here, the old master was more visible on the touchline than his apprentice in the opposite dug-out – shifting Ronaldo from left to right when Morten Gamst Pedersen was limiting him and trying his darnedest to move Rooney, too. The striker was in a stew, never entirely recovering from being denied the penalty he was owed after Steven Reid tripped him, then being booked as he lashed a foot into Samba's thigh in frustration. He should recover from the hip injury he sustained in time for Wednesday but his season is looking like one he will care to forget.
Though the work ethic delivered, there were grounds for encouragement here for Grant. United's defence has looked fallible for the past few weeks now and the confusion which gave Roque Santa Cruz his 20th goal of the season – the ball cannoning between Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic into his path after Ferdinand misjudged Pedersen's cross – was not the only bad moment. Hughes' decision to deploy Santa Cruz down the right to take advantage of Patrice Evra's perceived aerial weakness was an excellent one and twice the Paraguayan might have capitalised.
United were refused two more good penalty shouts – a Brett Emerton handball and Johann Vogel's tackle from behind on Ronaldo – and Brad Friedel delivered four of his best saves before Tevez struck. Hughes expects them to prevail against another of his old clubs, Barcelona, this week, even though Lionel Messi will be fit. "They are very talented individually but collectively I'm not sure they are as good as United," he said. But his own shrewd tactics mean that Ferguson might yet need the three remaining games at his disposal, the last of which brings him up against Wigan's Steve Bruce. Another figure all too well acquainted with United's ways. It's not quite over yet.
Goals: Santa Cruz (21) 1-0; Tevez (88) 1-1.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-1-1): Friedel; Reid, Samba, Nelsen, Warnock; Santa Cruz, Vogel (Mokoena, 85), Emerton, Pedersen; Bentley; Roberts. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Ooijer, McCarthy, Dunn.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Kuszczak; Brown (O'Shea, 81), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Ronaldo, Tevez, Giggs (Nani, 46); Rooney (Park, 90). Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Pique.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Booked: Blackburn Reid; Manchester United Rooney.
Man of the match: Friedel.
Attendance: 30, 316.