His new-found zest for the Carling Cup was revealed in a formidable team-sheet, in the blood that poured from the head of Alan Smith and in an approach to a contest that fulfilled its mantle of local derby and a semi-final, but Sir Alex Ferguson is yet to find a way to defeat Mark Hughes in management and will have to amend that statistic on 25 January for Manchester United to be certain of at least one showpiece occasion this season.
There was a second domestic cup draw in four days for United last night, yet no need for the inquest that followed their embarrassing FA Cup draw at Burton Albion on Sunday. Against a Blackburn Rovers side that combined the resilience and the spectacular of their manager's playing career, the visitors shaded the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final at Ewood Park, and will have home advantage when they meet again for the right to face either Wigan Athletic or Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium next month.
In a further reflection of Hughes' character, however, Blackburn will face the second leg without fear, having triumphed at Old Trafford in September courtesy of two goals from Morten Gamst Pedersen, who struck again last night to cancel out Louis Saha's 30th-minute opener, and having created enough chances in the first half to encourage their prospects of a repeat.
"We have no reason to go to Old Trafford thinking the tie is over," said the Rovers manager. "We've been there once and won so there is no reason why we cannot go there and do it again. There is real belief in this side."
Both managers insisted they enjoyed "a real cup-tie" last night, one that contained eight bookings, two excellent goals and one mass melée sparked by a dangerous challenge by Smith on Robbie Savage that perhaps warranted more than just a yellow card from referee Rob Styles. "It was a poor challenge and we are disappointed with Rob Styles' interpretation of it," added Hughes. "If he had given a red card it would have put a different complexion on the game but it was never a game of eight bookings, absolutely not."
Ferguson had attempted some pre-match psychology on his former striker, claiming that "they will play their strongest side, but we won't". True to his word, he opted for Saha ahead of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, otherwise it was the Scot's strongest possible line-up as both sides treated the contest with the respect it merited and Ferguson was forced to concede once again that his inexperienced players cannot be trusted, not even against Burton.
His selection was rewarded when the French international Saha latched on to a fine run and threaded pass by Ryan Giggs to beat Brad Friedel convincingly in the 30th minute, inadvertently sparking a seven-minute spell that enthralled Ewood Park, only for the second half to look dull by comparison. Blackburn's riposte to Saha's goal was swift and even more impressive as Pedersen beat Gary Neville to Shefki Kuqi's flick-on and angled a fine volley across Edwin Van der Sar five minutes later.
After the beauty, came a beast of an incident when Smith, man of the match Wayne Rooney and Savage were all booked for their part in a modest flare-up. Rooney will miss the Burton replay as a consequence of his fifth booking of the season while Craig Bellamy, earlier booked for dissent, will also be absent from his incendiary return to Newcastle for the same offence. There is plenty to look forward to, however. "The result sets it up nicely but the tie is not finished," Ferguson said. "Blackburn beat us earlier in the season and so we know how we will have to play."
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill, Todd, Nelsen, Gray; Bentley (Emerton 76), Savage, Tugay (Reid, 76), Pedersen; Bellamy, Kuqi (Dickov, 84). Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Khizanishvili.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre; Ronaldo, Smith, Fletcher (O'Shea, 84), Giggs; Saha (Van Nistelrooy, 81), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Bardsley, Rossi.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Scholes 'blind' claims rejected
Manchester United last night rejected claims Paul Scholes is suffering from partial blindness. Scholes, 30, has not played since suffering a bang on the head during the draw with Birmingham on 28 December. A United spokesman said: "Paul has blurred vision in one eye. He has not got a cyst and is not suffering from blindness."
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