Ewood Park will be no place for the faint-hearted when the second leg of this Worthington Cup semi-final comes around a fortnight today. Blackburn, the holders, will fancy their chances of returning to the Millennium Stadium after apparently doing the hard part at Old Trafford. But Manchester United have never lost a last-four tie in a domestic cup during Sir Alex Ferguson's 17 years as manager, and will feel they can only play better.
The goals came in a rush either side of the hour mark. United went ahead through Paul Scholes but Blackburn, driven on by the imperious Tugay Kerimoglu, levelled with a goal by David Thompson. It was a measure of their ascendancy that Graeme Souness, the Blackburn manager, admitted he was "disappointed" by the outcome.
Souness was particularly put out by the ludicrous late caution incurred by his right-back, Lucas Neill, which means that the Australian will be suspended for the return match unless the referee, Uriah Rennie, reviews his decision. Neill, who was being held back by Mikaël Silvestre in the United area when his momentum tipped him over, might have expected a penalty rather than a punishment.
In a frenzied finale, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have stolen the spoils in stoppage time but for an extraordinary goal-line clearance by the 17-year-old James McEveley with his chest in only his fifth first-team appearance. Souness may be advised to remind his team that, while they beat United at home in the Premiership the weekend before Christmas, they also gained a moral victory at Celtic in the Uefa Cup but still lost the home leg and the tie.
"We played well and it would have been unfair if we hadn't taken anything from the game," Souness said. "We kept the ball well on a difficult pitch against a good team, and we've kept the tie alive. It's all to play for at our place." On the booking of Neill, he added: "Whether it was a penalty or not, there's no way that Lucas dived and I'm going to try to speak to Uriah Rennie to ask him to look at it again."
Ferguson also felt the Blackburn player had not dived. However, he suggested, somewhat strangely, that since "most of the decisions" had been in the visitors' favour, they could hardly complain. He added: "It was a funny atmosphere for a semi-final. There was a lack of passion and it never got going."
Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, for whom Old Trafford was once home, embodied the swagger with which Blackburn performed. Another United old boy, Keith Gillespie, replaced the limping David Dunn early on and was denied a possible winner when Wes Brown headed his cross-cum-shot from under the bar in the closing minutes.
United, without the injured Roy Keane, worked hard to feed David Beckham on the right, doubtless hoping to exploit McEveley's inexperience. The former Everton youth player was nerveless on the ball, but his positional sense occasionally betrayed him, prompting Souness to appear in the technical area after 10 minutes exhorting Dunn to help him out.
Instead, a hamstring strain forced Dunn off, with Thompson switching flanks to support McEveley. By that time the only threat to either goal was a 22-yard shot by Juan Sebastian Veron which flew narrowly wide. Not that Blackburn were negative, moving the ball around with an aplomb befitting a team unbeaten in six games.
Blackburn finally translated their flowing build-up into a shot on target in the 32nd minute. Ryan Giggs lost possession to give Neill a long-range sight of goal, Barthez pushing the defender's drive behind.
A reckless challenge on Beckham earned McEveley a yellow card, stirring United into a late first-half flurry. But Ruud van Nistelrooy, one on one against Brad Friedel after Scholes' header and Giggs' dummy, shot at the keeper.
In the absence of Keane, United struggled to prevent Tugay from dominating midfield. The Turkish international is no shrinking violet when it comes to ball-winning, but he also demonstrated that he rarely wastes a pass.
Beckham increasingly came infield to bolster Veron and Phil Neville, but the fact that McEveley had already been booked made the Blackburn player tread carefully after the break. In the 55th minute, Beckham skipped past him and crossed low, only for Van Nistelrooy, under pressure from defenders at the near post, to blaze over.
United went in front after 58 minutes. Again the danger stemmed from Beckham, whose low centre hit the ubiquitous Neill and was uncharacteristically fumbled by Friedel. Scholes, who had been out on the left wing while Giggs moved up alongside Van Nistelrooy, materialised like a true predator to nudge the loose ball over the line. The lead was short-lived. Tugay and Yorke worked the ball wide to their right, from where Gillespie picked out the unmarked Thompson. The former Liverpool midfielder's stopping header from 10 yards beat Barthez to his left.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Barthez; G Neville, Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre; Beckham, P Neville (Forlan, 83), Veron, Giggs (Solskjaer, 74); Scholes; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Blanc, O'Shea, Ricardo (gk).
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill, Todd, Taylor, McEveley; Thompson (Jansen, 66), Flitcroft, Tugay, Dunn (Gillespie, 19); Cole, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Johansson, Ostenstad, Kelly (gk).
Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).
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