Rovers safe as steady Stead strikes again

Blackburn Rovers 1 Manchester United 0
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The Independent Online

They may purport to be a club bound by togetherness off the field but on it Manchester United remain a disjointed unit, whose hopes of entering the Champions' League without the inconvenience of a qualifying round are fading.

They may purport to be a club bound by togetherness off the field but on it Manchester United remain a disjointed unit, whose hopes of entering the Champions' League without the inconvenience of a qualifying round are fading.

Never able to muster more than the occasional hint that they might score, United were beaten by Jonathan Stead's goal five minutes from time. It was the 21-year-old's sixth in 11 games since stepping up three divisions from Huddersfield. The striker ensured Blackburn stay in the Premier League, their season rescued by a run of four straight wins.

For United, beaten three times in the last four games, the gap between themselves and Chelsea is now a forbidding four points, with Claudio Ranieri's side due at Old Trafford next Saturday. Nine defeats makes this season equal with United's worst in the Premiership and manager Sir Alex Ferguson must now address the possibility of finishing outside the top two for only the second time.

"Chelsea are in a great position," he said afterwards. "They really only need to draw at Old Trafford. With two games to go, to be four points behind makes it very difficult, almost impossible for us to get second place."

In United's mitigation, they were missing both their first-choice strikers, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha, through injury. After Friday's unprecedented appearance by the former to denounce rumours he was leaving Old Trafford, anyone hoping to see the Dutchman on the field would have been disappointed as he remained sidelined by a thigh injury.

Saha was nursing an Achilles injury picked up in last weekend's home defeat by Liverpool while Cristiano Ronaldo had been hurt playing a friendly for Portugal. A hamstring strain ruled out Roy Keane and Paul Scholes was absent through suspension. What was left was a makeshift line-up in which Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer formed a front two with Kleberson tucked in behind them. Nicky Butt, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Phil Neville lined up in midfield but, despite a generous share of possession, there was little evidence of creative harmony.

"With the possession we had we should have done better," Ferguson said. "But we made only two or three chances, which tells a tale of the part goalscorers play. Saha, Van Nistelrooy and Scholes are all proven goalscorers and they were a big loss to us."

If Ferguson wore his look of studied resignation, the Blackburn manager, Graeme Souness, appeared liable to break into a jig as he expressed his relief. "After the season we have had I'm absolutely delighted," he said. "We've had four great wins to pull ourselves away from trouble and to achieve safety by beating Manchester United makes it a great day for the club."

But it was not a great match. The opening 45 minutes were flat and while Blackburn's caginess was understandable as they sought the point that would guarantee their safety, United's was less so.

Souness had feared for his side with his best defender, Lorenzo Amoruso, again on the treatment table, but in the event, moments of anxiety were few. Even in the second half, after Ferguson had his chance to bring the weight of his wisdom to bear, United's performance lacked motivation.

Some 75 minutes had elapsed before Brad Friedel was required to make a proper save as Gary Neville's low cross was met almost on the volley by Giggs from little more than six yards out. By then, however, Blackburn had been close to going ahead through Tugay's diagonal shot.

Ferguson sent on David Bellion, Diego Forlan and Darren Fletcher in the hope of stealing a late victory. However, it was Blackburn who had the last say. Four defenders flocked around Paul Gallacher, just on as a substitute, but none picked up Stead coming in from the blind side on the left. Gallacher slipped the ball to him and he lifted it over Tim Howard with a composure beyond his years.

Stead was effectively on another planet describing the moment. "To be playing against Manchester United is a dream," he said. "To score the winner against them... it's just fantastic."

Blackburn Rovers 1 Manchester United 0
Stead 85

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 29,616

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