Sir Alex Ferguson admitted last night that the Premier League title appears to have "slipped away" from his Manchester United side after they were held to a goalless draw by Blackburn Rovers.
United's poor display completed the perfect weekend for Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea, who having advanced into the FA Cup final at Aston Villa's expense, could extend their lead to four points if they beat Bolton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge tomorrow evening. Ferguson's prospects are further dented by the forbidding prospect of facing Manchester City at Eastlands next Saturday, where Carlos Tevez will be relishing the prospect of driving the final nail in his old manager's season.
Ferguson, who faces an anxious wait on Rio Ferdinand's fitness following a groin injury sustained yesterday, suggested a poor pitch had not helped but did not deny the fault was United's yesterday. "I think it [the title] has slipped away from us today," he said. "It is going to be very difficult to win this league. We have a lifeline if Chelsea blow it, but to my eyes they have an easy game against Bolton. We would expect them to win that.
"We needed to win. We had to win [all of our remaining] games. We didn't do it. That is the disappointment."
Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce did not spare his old friend. He might have helped Ferguson celebrate the success of his horse, ironically named What A Friend, in the Aintree winners' enclosure four days ago, but the generosity of spirit stopped at the gates of Ewood Park yesterday.
"You've got to understand you don't come here and get it easy," Allardyce declared darkly last night. "Teams can't come here, certainly back end of the season, and think they are going to create chances and win. Chelsea have come here twice and not won."
The difference between Chelsea's 1-1 draw here two weeks ago and this desultory stalemate was that Carlo Ancelotti's side, for the first 45 minutes at least, looked capable of breaching Allardyce's defence as easily as clicking their fingers, whereas United were a side almost as shorn of creativity as in the home defeat to Chelsea a week earlier. In the 13 days it has taken them to slip out of Europe and into Chelsea's slipstream, they have become a group of individuals lacking conviction either in themselves or each other.
Allardyce overlooked Dimitar Berbatov last night when he said of United that "statistics tell you their second biggest scorer is own goals ... isn't it?"
That was quite understandable given the Bulgarian resembled a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown – flapping and grumbling at every team-mate who suffered the misfortune of interlinking with him, plunging head in hands at each chance spurned, drifting deeper and deeper into midfield as the game wore on. Tellingly, one of his last actions was to slip on the turf and throw a handful of it away in frustration.
With the exception of the sublime pass which fashioned the game's stand-out scoring chance, it would have served everyone in red had he simply not been there, especially Federico Macheda, a 19-year-old in need of support, not censure, as he started his first game of the season. Berbatov's team-mates seemed to be saying something when, as half-time approached, he lay writhing in Blackburn's penalty area and, to a man, they just played on.
The contrast with Wayne Rooney's effervescence has become so blinding in these past few weeks that you wonder where Berbatov goes this summer, but it is not just a finisher that United lack. This was the afternoon for a playmaker to glitter in the sunshine, picking a route or a pass through the six players Allardyce had clamped to the edge of the penalty area for most of the game. It was messy, not Messi, in that critical last third for United and Ferguson's team selection suggested as much hope forsaken in the players of the future as they seem to have lost in themselves. Michael Carrick would have aspired to be United's creative nexus at a time like this but he sat on the bench, just like a week ago. It was the tried and tested – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville – whom Ferguson once again turned to.
Antonio Valencia, one of this season's bright lights, might have turned the game when Berbatov seized on Paul Robinson's poor clearance, worked some space in front of the Rovers box and sent him in with a disguised pass, but Paul Robinson recovered to save well with his feet just before the interval.
United threw the cavalry at it as the second half drifted away, though Rovers' spirit, manifest in the way Phil Jones launched himself in the line of Berbatov's fire 20 minutes from time, held out and Steven Nzonzi almost secured the points at the end. Berbatov had spurned two more chances just before that. As he did so, the mind turned to Carlos Tevez popping up with an 88th-minute equaliser here, almost two years ago to the day, which secured United a point critical to their title. The horses really hadn't offered Ferguson an omen, after all. It might not have escaped his attention that his old adversary JP McManus was the owner of the Grand National winner on Saturday – ridden by a jockey wearing green and gold.
Blackburn Rovers (4-2-3-1): P Robinson; Salgado, Samba (Nelsen, 33), Jones, Givet; Grella, Nzonzi; Emerton (Dunn, h-t), Pedersen, Olsson (Diouf, 70); Kalinic. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Roberts, Andrews, Di Santo.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, O'Shea (Evra, 78); Valencia, Scholes, Giggs (Gibson, 57), Nani; Berbatov, Macheda (Park, 65). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Evans, Fletcher, Obertan.
Referee: P Walton (Northants).
Booked: Blackburn Salgado; Manchester United Neville, Gibson.
Man of the Match: Jones