Smith gives Rooney food for thought

Blackburn Rovers 1 - Manchester United 1
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The Independent Online

If recent events on Merseyside have finally fractured what Wayne Rooney once declared to be undying love between himself and Everton Football Club, then those a few degrees north-east might have convinced him about where to next tie the knot.

If recent events on Merseyside have finally fractured what Wayne Rooney once declared to be undying love between himself and Everton Football Club, then those a few degrees north-east might have convinced him about where to next tie the knot.

All the evidence of this astonishing Ewood Park draw pointed to a goal-filled Old Trafford season, despite the worrying eight-point deficit on Arsenal and Chelsea that Manchester United will try to cut to five today.

That they will do so against Rooney's current club is an interesting aside, as is debate over whether he would have succeeded where any number of United strikers and midfielders failed in trying to beat the magnificent Brad Friedel.

But how England's - and possibly Europe and beyond's - top teenage footballer would have relished the silver service at the lunchtime table. United failed to win again at a ground on which they haven't taken maximum points for six years. But there was much for Sir Alex Ferguson, Rooney and anyone else to admire in the way they kept pinging the ball about in the manufacture of clear opportunities after Paul Dickov's well-taken early goal.

Last week, Blackburn were unable to prevent Arsenal setting a record mark for unbeaten league games. Here, the totting-up centred on the number of goal attempts - close on 20 - that they yielded to a side who had barely created one in their first-weekend defeat at Chelsea.

Eight of them were met with saves of varying degrees of excellence from a goalkeeper who, if born in Bamber Bridge rather than Bay Village, Ohio, would surely be England's regular No 1.

Before and after Lorenzo Amoruso's 71st-minute sending-off for a second yellow card, Friedel used his fingertips, feet or legs to induce disbelieving head-shakes from Alan Smith, Kleberson, Cristiano Ronaldo, Louis Saha and the outstanding Paul Scholes.

Generous though Ferguson was in his praise, he knew a sharper-finishing United would not have had to rely on the reprieve that came in what the cynics might call "Fergie time". "The goalkeeper's done a fantastic job," he said. "You can't deny that. But we had some good chances and really should have been putting some of them away."

The clock was three and a half minutes over the 90 when Smith, whose five-goals-in-six-games start is more food for thought for Rooney, lashed in an equaliser that was hotly disputed. Saha clearly handled, accidentally and cruciall, in the build-up, while the Blackburn manager, Graeme Souness, not always the most accurate barometer when it comes to touchline rantings, insisted the final whistle should already have gone.

Despite his pride that what he termed "a small club in east Lancashire" had gone so close to bringing down United's superstars for the second time in five months, he was seething, yet more restrained than when cursing Andy D'Urso for awarding Southampton a contentious late penalty a week earlier.

But the referee Alan Wiley, who also allowed a controversial David Beckham equaliser in this fixture three years ago, said: "The fourth official indicated there should be three minutes' stoppage time. I said there should be four. As for the handball, we would have given it if we had spotted it."

The main plus point for Souness was Rovers' admirable work ethic. Not so encouraging were the early departure of David Thompson with an ankle injury on his long-awaited comeback and the subdued debut of winger Morten Gamst Pedersen.

Goals: Dickov (17) 1-0; Smith (90) 1-1.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill, Short, Amoruso, Matteo; Thompson (Emerton, 17), Ferguson, Tugay, Pedersen; Stead (Yorke, 64), Dickov (Johansson, 71). Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), De Pedro.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Howard; G Neville, O'Shea, Silvestre, Spector (Miller, 75); Djemba-Djemba (Bellion, 80), Scholes, Kleberson (Saha h/t); Ronaldo, Smith, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), P Neville.

Booked: Blackburn Rovers: Stead, Amoruso, Tugay. Manchester United: Kleberson.

Sent off: Blackburn: Amoruso (71).

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire)

Man of the match: Friedel.

Attendance: 26,155.

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