The man standing at the edge of the pitch last evening, peering hard at his wristwatch and staring in disbelief at the board which presaged four minutes of additional time, didn’t have the demeanour of an untouchable. Eight points clear of the rest of the Premier League Sir Alex Ferguson’s side might be but there was some succour for the rest as they got there, and a clearly discernible chink in the armour ahead of Manchester United’s journey to Milan in the Champions’ League with another defensive injury.
The sight of Jonny Evans limping from the field with an ankle injury contributed to what Ferguson described as a “bit of a nightmare” where central defenders for Tuesday’s encounter with Internazionale are concerned, and the whole afternoon was much the same, characterised by old controversies about Cristiano Ronaldo’s petulance and alleged refereeing bias at Old Trafford, which had Ferguson and Sam Allardyce remonstrating on the touchline before the day was done.
The match-winner Ronaldo might have been, courtesy of a gracefully and powerfully dispatched second-half free-kick, but he should have been booked and might have been dismissed for a petulant kick at David Dunn, with Howard Webb in close attendance. He was booked for diving in the box when Blackburn’s Gaël Givet had not seriously impeded him, but it was Webb’s decision not to grant Rovers a penalty after Rafael da Silva appeared to place a hand on Morten Gamst Pedersen’s shoulder as he raced into the box in search of a second equaliser, which agitated Allardyce.
“It has to be pretty blatant here at Old Trafford to get a penalty, we all know that,” Allardyce said. “The surrounding area has a massive intimidation on everyone, officials included.”
Ferguson disagreed, needless to say, and neither was he satisfied when Evans’s powerful first-half header, which sent a Nani corner into the net, was dubiously disallowed for an infringement on Ryan Nelsen by Ronaldo. The issue was clouded because the corner should not have been allowed in the first place. “Sometimes the referee gives a free-kick when he has a doubt about a corner kick,” Ferguson said. “There was absolutely no doubt in my mind – it was a goal.”
Quibbles like that do not befit untouchables, though United started like just such a side, with Wayne Rooney’s second goal in the 53 minutes he has played since returning from his five games out with a hamstring injury just part of a fine individual contribution spanning the length and breadth of the pitch. Nani span a cross in from the right, Nelsen tried to guide it back to Paul Robinson but Rooney sneaked in to strike on 23 minutes.
But for a side which had gone 1,334 minutes without conceding in a Premier League game, it was inconceivable that so many United players could have been at fault for the goal which, nine minutes later, blew the club’s attempts to equal the European club record for most league games without conceding.
Nani dithered over a ball five yards inside United’s half, allowing Andre Ooijer to seize it, slalom past Patrice Evra and slide in a ball for Roque Santa Cruz. Rio Ferdinand let him past and impeded Tomas Kuszczak, who had raced out at the wrong angle to find himself in no-man’s land. Santa Cruz slid in his second goal against Manchester United in as many games and doubts about Kuszczak’s reliability persist. At least Edwin van der Sar’s personal pursuit of 15 successive clean sheets remains intact, since he was rested for this game.
Later, Nelsen was allowed a shot in the United box which slammed against the post and Kuszczak was lucky to fall on top of the shot which El-Hadji Diouf fired in on the rebound. Ronaldo’s finish was more convincing. A flawed win, but a win nevertheless, and as Ferguson concluded: “If you don’t play your very best and get a result like that it can go towards a title.”
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Dunn
Match rating: 6/10