Sharpe cuts a dash

Manchester United 1 Sharpe 14 Blackburn Rovers 0 Attendance: 42 ,681
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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK Old Trafford became licensed to host weddings, and yesterday it staged something similar: two parties with an intertwined recent history coming together to form what was to prove a testy match. At the end, Manchester United were left wearing the trousers courtesy of Lee Sharpe's first-half goal.

The margin of victory should have been several times greater, however, and United's sense of frustration will only have been increased by the manoeuvrings at Middlesbrough, which left them still nine points adrift of Newcastle at the top of the Premiership. "For a wee while I thought we were going to have a good day when I heard the score from Middlesbrough," said the United manager Alex Ferguson. "We are patient, though, very patient."

As for Blackburn Rovers, theirs remains a season of "in sickness and in health", feeble away form - five goals, seven points - in stark contrast to that at home. "We were determined and organised, but going forward I didn't think we looked as if we thought we could get anything our of it," Ray Harford, their manager, said in apt appraisal.

It is becoming a familiar story at Old Trafford these days. Blackburn, like almost all others here, worked hard and defended in depth, midfield four almost backed up to defensive quartet. Alan Shearer did his best to realise their hopes of a moment of inspiration on the break, but otherwise they provided dull fare. The absence of the injured Lars Bohinen from their midfield was a significant factor, though a 75-minute appearance by Jason Wilcox, his first in 11 months after knee ligament damage, offered some consolation.

Thankfully a goal early in the proceedings ensured that Blackburn could not simply seek to survive. As so often on these occasions, United look to Eric Cantona - assuming the captain's armband yesterday in the absence of the injured Steve Bruce - to unpick the lock and he duly obliged. A one-two set Andy Cole free for a shot, which he clipped past Tim Flowers only for the ball to rebound from a post. Sharpe was on hand to lob home, though.

They might have added to it before half-time when Cantonaalmost got on the end of a low cross from Sharpe after a neat move which he himself began and which went through Roy Keane, United's powerhouse these days. Flowers also had to fingertip over a powerful dipping shot by the excellent Denis Irwin.

Shearer, before the break at least, always offered Blackburn an outlet, however. He headed over Kevin Gallagher's cross, volleyed another half- chance across goal then almost seized on a weak back pass by Gary Pallister, which Peter Schmeichel had to rescue.

After that, Shearer could not come close to adding to his 30 goals this season, his record against United now two in 12 games. He received constant abuse from fans who have still not forgiven him for preferring to join Blackburn rather than United and his frustration showed when he followed through on Schmeichel and was booked.

With little support, it meant a comfortable afternoon for David May and Pallister, returning after three months out with a back injury. Their only real concern came when the on-loan Swedish substitute Nicky Gudmundsson volleyed just over a few minutes from time.

It should have been resolved as a contest by then. When United did find a way round the excellent Colin Hendry, Cole glanced wide David Beckham's cross from the right, then shot straight at Flowers after gathering from Beckham. Ryan Giggs, effervescent in midfield, also forced the goalkeeper to save. "We do lack a cutting edge sometimes," Ferguson said.

The manager said - commendably - that he agreed with Newcastle's chairman Sir John Hall that the league runners-up should go into the formerly named Champions' Cup, as Uefa announced last week, though he added that it was presumptuous of Sir John to believe that United would be runners- up.

Brides may come to Old Trafford, but United don't want to be the bridesmaid.