Inevitably the focus was on what happened to United’s iron chain of defence in the absence of Edwin van der Sar and, for all but half an hour, Nemanja Vidic. Indeed, it became an almost instant mess.
But then surely as concerning to Sir Alex Ferguson, as he reminded us of those occasions when he seemed less a magisterial football manager and more a clock and watch fetishist, was that his A-list attackers Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Cristiano Ronaldo not only failed to bury Blackburn but also allowed them to grow strong at places that should have been summarily broken.
No one is a greater believer in the value of momentum, and grand statements, than Ferguson and what he was looking for here, along with three points, was a show of genuine authority before journeying into the giant maw of Mourinho mischief in San Siro tomorrow night.
What he got, at both the back and the front of a team widely praised as potentially the best of all his creations, was some disturbing underachievement.
Rooney and Ronaldo, it is true, each delivered a stunning goal but neither of the strikes did anything to recreate the sense of certainty which has become such a palpable ingredient in recent success.
There was a dismayingly simple explanation for this. Much of United’s recent aura has been built on record-breaking defence in which Van der Sar and Vidic have been especially prominent. Without them, United listed dangerously and Blackburn were eventually emboldened to the point where they could easily have delivered a devastating defeat.
Nor did it help that if the World Player of the Year delivered a flash of sublime, trademarked skill with his unstoppable free-kick, he also spent much of the rest of his time, as he has with disturbing frequency this season, making a parody of his status.
His dive for a penalty was without either conscience or the vaguest power to deceive and when he petulantly stabbed a boot at David Dunn he was immensely fortunate not to receive the yellow card, which, added to the play-pen “simulation”, would have resulted in his dismissal.
Ferguson accused his post-game interrogator of making a meal of the incident because Ronaldo was involved, but this is part of the territory occupied by one of the most fabled footballers of his age. The dispassionate view was surely that Ronaldo had showed shocking indiscipline which could have brought devastating consequences. What Ferguson craves, and is surely entitled to expect, is a seriousness of purpose which, you sometimes have to conclude, was not issued to Ronaldo along with all the other football bounty piled into his cradle.
Big Sam Allardyce was naturally aggrieved when Morten Gamst Pedersen failed to gain a penalty after Rafael da Silva briefly draped an arm on his shoulder – and certainly no one could dispute the raging inconsistency of referee Howard Webb, who ruled out the spot-kick but omitted to hand out the yellow card produced so quickly for Ronaldo.
Pedersen’s fall seemed no more artful than the Ronaldo flop and he said later: “If the referee thinks I was diving I should have got a yellow card like Ronaldo did. They’re two situations but I’m not the referee. I felt something on my shoulder. He got his arms around my shoulder. People will probably look at my legs but I felt something and it’s not like I tried go down.”
The Blackburn manager was also perturbed by the referee’s failure to act against Ronaldo after the Dunn incident. Certainly he had reason to challenge the legitimacy of the United player’s presence on the field when he sent in the mortar-shell free-kick which left Rovers goalkeeper Paul Robinson in a torment of indecision. Blackburn might easily have taken the lead before then when Ryan Nelsen fired against a post and El Hadji Diouf could only send the rebound into the grasp of Tomasz Kuszczak.
Van der Sar’s understudy hung on like a drowning man, a status that he plainly found unshakeable after allowing Roque Santa Cruz to stroke into an empty goal the equaliser to the Rooney opener that was taken with such assurance that it seemed likely to be the first of several.
Unfortunately, apart from Ronaldo’s bolt and a questionably disallowed goal by Jonny Evans, who went off with an ankle injury, we had now seen the best of United. The deterioration was marked most worryingly by the Kuszczak calamity, when his panicky rush out of goal was easily bypassed by the Blackburn striker.
By the end the visitors had every reason to believe they might at least rescue a point. Kuszczak seemed so haunted he could have been a fugitive on the run and there was much heavy symbolism in the moment when United repulsed the last of the pressure, filled by the sight of Vidic, as unrelenting as granite, heading away a cross.
He made it easy enough to understand the extent of Jose Mourinho’s agitation that he should have been banned from both the Champions League ties after his dismissal in the Club World Cup final in December. As it is, with injury and illness possibly depriving Rio Ferdinand of a partner with any experience in the centre of defence, Vidic’s absence in Milan is taking shape as United’s greatest challenge of the season.
Without him, and Van der Sar, they looked to be without satisfactory moorings. It means that Ferguson is more entitled than ever to call for an exceptional performance, and especially from the men at the front. For the moment at least, it seems that their easy ride is over.
Goals: Rooney (23) 1-0; Santa Cruz (32) 1-1; Ronaldo (60) 2-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans (Vidic, 64), Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes (Giggs, 82), Nani (Tevez, 64); Rooney, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Fabio, Fletcher, Welbeck.
Blackburn Rovers (4-5-1): Robinson; Ooijer, Nelsen, Givet, Warnock; Grella (McCarthy, 79), Diouf (Treacy, 83), Andrews, Dunn (Tugay, 73), Pedersen; Santa Cruz. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Khizanishvili, Mokoena, Roberts.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Manchester United Ronaldo, Berbatov; Blackburn Rovers Andrews, Givet.
Man of the match: Vidic.
Attendance: 75,000.Reuse content