Manchester United's 10th title in 16 Premier League seasons, taken for Avram Granted after Chelsea surrendered two critical points at home to Wigan last Monday, was plunged into doubt for more than an hour last night until Carlos Tevez finally managed to beat the heroic Brad Friedel with a header two minutes from the end of normal time.
Impending defeat on a bitterly cold April evening had sent a chill through the 7,000 visiting supporters and brought a breath of fresh air to the race, offering Chelsea the chance to become champions by winning their last three games – starting at home to United on Saturday. Instead Tevez's header means the reigning champions can now afford to lose at Stamford Bridge and stay on top because of a vastly superior goal difference. A victory would effectively seal the title, with games against Wigan and West Ham to spare.
Although United's performance failed to reach the standards they have set over the season – especially in the first half – the game slowly became a dramatic one, with countless hair's-breadth decisions. Four strong penalty appeals (three of them to United) were turned down and close scrutiny of television replays revealed that the corner leading to the equaliser should have been a goal-kick.
Sir Alex Ferguson's front four, for all their interchanging, failed to threaten in the opening half an hour and Blackburn deserved the lead given to them by Roque Santa Cruz's 20th goal of the season. At that stage the old United warrior – and future manager? – Mark Hughes appeared to have won a tactical battle by using Santa Cruz on the right and flooding the midfield. Ferguson, the old master, then responded by replacing an anonymous Ryan Giggs with the energy of Nani, and as Cristiano Ronaldo emerged from an unusual shell, United at last demonstrated the quality that ought now to win another crown.
The visiting manager was more impressed with their commitment in adversity. "Their tenacity and passion in the second half were fantastic," he said. "They played like champions. We dominated the second half and were very unlucky not to win the match." It will be a happy Sunday in the Ferguson household after his son Darren led Peterborough to promotion in his first managerial job.
Even with Wednesday's visit to Barcelona in mind, Ferguson Snr still went for his strongest available side, which should be reinforced with the return of Edwin van der Sar in Spain. Owen Hargreaves was not involved, and can apparently no longer be considered a part of the first XI, Michael Carrick again being preferred in the principal holding midfielder's role.
Paul Scholes was required to sit alongside him for much of the time as Santa Cruz sat deep, but the first time the Paraguayan assumed his usual position at centre forward, he set Ewood alight with a goal. Morten Gamst Pedersen took a throw on the left that confused Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, who both moved to challenge Jason Roberts. The ball squirmed between all three of them, falling perfectly for Santa Cruz to tap in.
There had been a couple of alarming moments before the goal, notably when Scholes failed to clear and Blackburn felt that Tomas Kuszczak fouled Roberts inside the penalty area. To be fair, that decision by Rob Styles was cancelled out when he failed to see Steven Reid – unexpectedly playing at right-back – trip Wayne Rooney, whose frustration came out with a wild challenge on Christopher Samba that brought a yellow card.
Ronaldo, finally making his way into the game, offered the best hope of an equaliser, forcing Friedel into the first of many excellent saves with a header before half-time, then striking a post with his left-footed drive.
For the remaining 25 minutes the ball seemed to be in or around the home team's area. The referee turned down confident penalty appeals for Johann Vogel's challenge on Ronaldo and Brett Emerton's block with his elbow of Carrick's header; Friedel brilliantly foiled Rooney and John O'Shea.
The last save, however, only delayed what had become the inevitable when, from Nani's disputed corner, Scholes headed on and Tevez nodded in.