United's bad day summed up by baffling decision to drop Rooney

Manchester United 1

Blackburn Rovers 2

Said Hughes: "People read too much into formations and the structure of your team. Really, it's all in the mix. First and foremost it is about players' application and allowing themselves an opportunity to have an impact on the game. Today, because of the way they worked and the positive manner in which they approached the game, they gave themselves a chance to win - and they grew in confidence."

Not so long ago - well it was last week, to be precise - Hughes' Blackburn were supposed to be so far from the angels they were a scar on the face of the Premiership. So much for stereotyping, both in tactics and the promptings of the football heart.

Blackburn arrived with two front men - against United's one, which was maybe the ultimate irony on the day Sir Alex Ferguson had boos in his ears for the first time - and a willingness to run in endless support of each other.

Again Hughes' analysis was impeccable, both in emphasis and spirit. He said: "I've played 4-5-1 [as United have been doing for some critical time] for a long time now and I know what has caused me problems in the past and I thought there were some areas that we could exploit, if we were positive and applied ourselves, and really believed in what we were doing.

"I thought we could cause them problems in the first half and I thought we did. We created a number of chances and on another day we could have won by more.

"You have to be brave just to walk through the doors here," he admitted. "There have been many examples over the years of players trying to play for United and not being able to hack it. So the bravery is in coming through these doors and keeping that belief that you can have some impact."

Hughes respectfully refused to speculate on how much his cause had been helped by Ferguson's decision to leave out Wayne Rooney, who misses tomorrow night's Champions' League encounter with Benfica, and it was not the least graceful aspect of his afternoon's performance. However, the question did not go away in the wave of finer feeling.

Ferguson was right to say that United could easily have won this fluent, intriguing game, but the reality was that their chances would have been significantly increased if Rooney had started the game rather than perform with bracing force for just the last 35 minutes.

Ferguson's assistant, Carlos Queiroz, was asked about the decision and he said: "We need to manage the form of players and we need to give opportunities to other players because we have important games coming up. We have the Benfica game and this was a good opportunity to play Ji-Sung Park."

This was baffling for two reasons. The South Korean is a player of combative spirit and commendable industry, but in terms of threat to the opposition does not begin to inhabit the same planet as Rooney. Nor do you "manage" the form of Wayne Rooney. You simply play him, whenever you can, and wait for the benefits. Football, more than most things, is about today rather than tomorrow. Within minutes of his arrival, Rooney had unlocked Blackburn's previously resolute defence, leaving Zurab Khizanishvili in a heap of indecision, before pounding a shot in and out of the grasp of goalkeeper Brad Friedel. Van Nistelrooy swooped exultantly and it was reasonable to believe that the United crisis was over.

That, however, was true only in the brief time it took for such as Craig Bellamy and the double goalscorer, Morten Gamst Pedersen, to reassert their belief that they might just win a little more than parity.

A bad mistake by Scholes, on whom the captaincy seemed to weigh like a shipment of pig iron, finally destroyed United, allowing Pedersen to shoot home. Earlier, he had exposed the frailty in United's defence, and Rio Ferdinand's general lack of conviction, with a free-kick which sailed across the United goal and into the net without hindrance from any defender.

Ferguson could not be denied when he said that United had played with some fluency and might easily have won. They had created enough chances, but then so had Blackburn. They had come convinced that they could win, it was a belief that even Rooney could not disturb unduly. However, it might have been different if he had a little more time. For United, it may be that it is a lot later than they think.

Goals: Pedersen (33) 1-0; Van Nistelrooy (67) 1-1; Pedersen (81) 1-2.

Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; O'Shea (Bardsley,57), Ferdinand, Silvestre, Richardson; Ronaldo, Fletcher (Rooney, 55), Smith, Scholes, Park (Giggs, 69); Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Miller.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill, Khizanishvili, Nelsen, Gray; Savage, Tugay (Mokoena, 45), Bentley (Emerton, 75), Pedersen; Dickov (Reid, 63). Bellamy. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Kuqi.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire)

Booked: Manchester United Ronaldo; Blackburn Savage, Bentley, Bellamy.

Man of the match: Pedersen.

Attendance: 67,765.

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