Belfast Telegraph

Valencia stars as United increase lead to five points

By Ian Herbert

Blackburn 0 Manchester United 2: It was another of those nights on which Manchester United exuded anything but the impression of imperious champions-elect and when their lack of ideas and vim was sending the game towards a drab conclusion, it seemed that Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, knew rather more about his rivals than the characterisation of him as the manager who is losing it would imply. "United will draw. Do you want to bet with me?" he had said of this game.

Then the player stepped up who has quietly established himself as the most significant one of all in United's inexorable march up the hill to a position where they can definitely discern a 20th championship today. Antonio Valencia, one of the least imposing of Sir Alex Ferguson's players but the one Wayne Rooney always says he most wants to see on the team sheet, was the only one who displayed genuine creativity all night.

There were only nine minutes remaining when he gathered a ball rolled into his path from Rafael da Silva, took it into the right edge of the penalty area and from the most acute angle unravelled a big right-foot shot to take his side a big step closer to domestic supremacy.

Ashley Young's strike five minutes later left United with a hand on the Premier League trophy again last night. On 3 March, City were five points clear at the top of the table but this morning – a month later – their rivals lead by the same margin. The 10-point swing reflects a side who have won 10 games in 11, seven on the trot.

Mancini said at the weekend that two more wins for United – here and at home to Queen's Park Rangers on Sunday – would mean City's pursuit of the title was "finished", a surprise to some of his own players, who wonder why he is ready to write off their challenge already. "City's cracking up" rang the song from United's supporters in the Darwen End, recalling Ferguson's famous suggestion that Rafael Benitez was doing precisely that when another manager's challenge to Old Trafford supremacy was ground deep into the dust three years ago.

Mancini's assertion that United would only draw with Steve Kean's side was certainly strange, though it had some substance, given that United had won only two of their previous 11 games at Ewood Park, effectively waved farewell to the title with an anaemic draw here two years ago and nearly stumbled in the course of clinching the title in the stadium last May.

But United began looking like the title contenders they are – the ones with all the momentum and self-belief. While Blackburn's strategy involved getting the ball to Junior Hoilett, who had too much for Michael Carrick at times, United had a myriad of options in a first half which they controlled. The mystery was how David de Gea managed to leave the field at half-time with three saves of the first order to his name, while his Rovers counterpart Paul Robinson had barely been called upon to muddy his gloves.

In part, United's profligacy was to blame. They were given an alarming amount of space in the Rovers penalty area at times but squandered it and Javier Hernandez certainly lacked the decisive finish. He slid a left-foot shot past the post after Rooney had lifted the ball over midfield to him just five minutes in and diverted a testing low ball from the enervating Valencia on to the base of the post, from where it rebound back into the Rovers goalkeeper's hands.

But the home side had the decisive pace that United, with their intricate patterns, somehow lacked. Hoilett's shot from 20 yards, which De Gea twisted to claw over the bar on 17 minutes, was the outstanding moment of the first period.

Martin Olsson provoked a similar save just before half-time and, from the resulting corner, Hanley's header called on De Gea to leap and save with his fingers again.

United began the second half trying from any range. Rooney's free-kick brought a low, two-handed save from Robinson, Rafael tested the goalkeeper from distance too but Hernandez failed to connect with a ball lofted back in to him.

The frustration began to show when Paul Scholes, questionably penalised for a challenge on Marcus Olsson in front of the United area, responded with incandescent anger. United were losing their way when Morten Gamst Pedersen drove home a ball into the net but a goal was chalked off because the ball had gone beyond the dead-ball line before Steven Nzonzi hooked it into box.

It took a crucial challenge from Rio Ferdinand in the 76th minute to prevent Yakubu sliding in to convert Marcus Olsson's cross on 76 minutes and with United struggling to ship the ball out of their own area it was hard to see where the vital goal might becoming from.

Valencia was the answer. He had remained the player most likely to rescue his side throughout the second half and Ferguson's unbridled delight when he drove in United's opening goal told a story.

The result was not in doubt after that. Ashley Young, on for Scholes, had been on the field for only seven minutes when he collected the ball outside the penalty area, turned onto his right foot and whistled a shot into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. Mancini's hopes are looking increasingly forlorn today.

Match facts



Scorers. Man Utd: Valencia 81, Young 86

Substitutes: Blackburn Rovers n/a. Manchester United Welbeck (Hernandez, 61); Giggs (Jones, 63); Young (Scholes, 80).

Booked: Blackburn Hanley. Manchester United Valencia.

Man of the match De Gea. Match rating 6/10.

Possession: Blackburn 30% Manchester United 70%.

Attempts on target: Blackburn 6 Manchester Utd 6.

Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire). Attendance 26,532.

Remaining fixtures

Manchester United

8 Apr QPR (h)

11 Apr Wigan (a)

15 Apr Aston Villa (h)

22 Apr Everton (h)

30 Apr Man City (a)

6 May Swansea (h)

13 May Sunderland (a)

Manchester City

8 Apr Arsenal (a)

11 Apr West Brom (h)

14 Apr Norwich (a)

22 Apr Wolves (a)

30 Apr Man Utd (h)

6 May Newcastle (a)

13 May QPR (h)

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