Manchester United returned to the top of the Premiership, albeit only temporarily, by overcoming a resolute Blackburn Rovers side in front of a record-breaking home crowd.
Those 67,748 fans were in full voice before the lunchtime kick-off, as news filtered through that England had won the Rugby World Cup. It is not often that you hear the whole of Old Trafford singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", but then the extraordinary events Down Under demanded something special from this Mecca of the round ball.
Almost inevitably, the match that followed was far from inspirational. Not that Sir Alex Ferguson cared much. "We're winning, and that's what matters," the United manager said, "although I was disappointed in our second-half performance, when we tried to put too much icing on the cake. But we'll get better as the season goes on."
Judging from his selections, Sir Alex either truly believes in his fringe players or does not think much of Blackburn. David Bellion, Kleberson and Quinton Fortune were in the starting XI, with the likes of Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and the in-form Diego Forlan on the bench. The change in personnel meant a variation in tactics, with the home side using an unusually defensive 4-1-4-1 formation.
The system suited Blackburn early on, as they soaked up what little pressure they were being put under only to then launch smart counterattacks. Twice in the opening 15 minutes the visitors broke quickly, but neither Dwight Yorke or Garry Flitcroft were able to capitalise. Big mistake. Indeed, what happened next was all too predictable. With 24 minutes gone, United's first meaningful passing move resulted in Ruud van Nistelrooy playing a quick one-two with Fortune just inside the Blackburn box, before burying the ball in Brad Friedel's net.
For flair, this United team are no match for their predecessors of the Nineties. But what the current side lack in creativity, they make up for in efficiency. And then there is Van Nistelrooy. One does wonder what Ferguson's men would do without Van the Man. Not only is he a prolific scorer, he is also a tireless team player. Seven minutes before half-time, he collected a pass from Roy Keane down the right flank before beating a defender and then finding Fortune with an inch-perfect cross. The South African international cushioned the ball for the onrushing Brazilian, Kleberson, who opened his United account with a neat left-foot finish past the diving Friedel.
With his side losing seven of their last nine matches before yesterday, a frustrated Graeme Souness decided desperate times called for desperate measures. So he withdrew two of his most experienced players, Matt Jansen and Steven Reid, and brought on Nils Johansson and the teenager Paul Gallagher. The substitutes seemed to make little difference as, six minutes after the restart, Gary Neville floated in a cross and John O'Shea rose highest to head towards goal. Friedel somehow managed to tip the ball over the bar.
The save galvanised Blackburn, although they must have wondered if this was simply not their day, as a Yorke "goal" was disallowed after he was called for offside. "I've seen those be given," was Souness's verdict. No matter. The visitors refused to give up and, within minutes, had halved United's lead. Gallagher, who impressed throughout the second half, gathered possession in the centre circle and, profiting from a mix-up in the Reds' defence, slipped a perfectly weighted pass to Brett Emerton. The pacey Australian left everyone for dead before slotting home an exquisite, curling finish.
Souness later said he was pleased his side had eventually got into the game, but admitted he was frustrated that it had taken them over an hour to do so. "In the first half," the Scot explained, "there were not enough players who believed we could get a result here. In the second, there were, but by then it was too late."
United responded to Blackburn's late threat by introducing Ronaldo for the last 20 minutes. The ploy was clearly to give the youngster the ball in order to play a possession game until the final whistle, and it worked perfectly. Time and again, the Portuguese international took the ball into the corners before invariably winning free-kicks from frustrated defenders. "We scrambled home, to be fair," Ferguson admitted, "but we won."Reuse content