Alex Dunn believes Manchester United's win at Blackburn on Monday evening was a display worthy of champions and can see the know-how of Sir Alex Ferguson's side coming to the fore between now and the campaign's conclusion.
By Alex Dunn - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsaldunn. Last Updated: 05/04/12 10:01am
By the time eighty minutes had elapsed at Ewood Park it looked as though Roberto Mancini might be in the money. Bristled by the assumption that the title was Manchester United's to lose after his City side had dropped points at home to Sunderland on Saturday the Italian had said: "United will draw. Do you want to bet with me?" Mancini's brio looked to have prescience for much of a contest defined by Blackburn's resilience but in the end, alas, it was patience that proved the decisive virtue as United called his bluff.
He's certainly out of pocket after the late intervention of United's roadrunners but whether he'll be out of a job come May will be determined by his chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak's own patience threshold.
United's travelling throngs in the Darwen End took great delight in ringing out a 'City's cracking up' ditty at regular intervals but last night wasn't about their neighbours but rather an inherent belief that will, barring an unlikely implosion of their own, deliver a fifth title in six seasons. Ewood Park holds few fond memories for United given it was an insipid goalless stalemate there that effectively ended their title tilt two years ago, while a record of two wins from 11 previous visits to their North West hosts hardly inspired confidence either.
That it was the unassuming Antonio Valencia, or more pertinently his harpoon of a right foot, that broke Blackburn's valiant resistance seemed strangely fitting after the ill-judged histrionics of Mario Balotelli at the weekend. Valencia moves with the straight back gait of a ballerina but has the punchy power of a bantamweight and his jackhammer of a strike, that had more than a little Nelinho circa '78 about it, was just desserts for as tireless a display as you will see from a winger all season. After 21 of his crosses went unconverted it was no surprise when he decided to get the job done himself.
This is a settled and happy United camp and it's clubs at one with themselves that win titles. On February 1 of this year the Ecuadorian amicably split from his agent after deciding he no longer needed one: "I do not want to move from Manchester. I am very happy and so I separated from Diego (Herrera). I'm happy where I live and I enjoy being in Manchester every day." On the same day an AWOL Carlos Tevez was reluctantly drafting an apology from the fairway after accepting the fact no suitor had come in for him on transfer deadline day.
City will get it right over the next few years, with or without Mancini, of that there is no doubt but for now it is United's know-how, cliché or not, that will see them over the line.
Sir Alex Ferguson is not a man to tolerate complacency and there was a signal of his intent to treat Blackburn with utmost respect by a relative conservatism to the side he selected. Phil Jones' inclusion to add legs to the more measured promptings of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick saw Wayne Rooney rewarded for 17 goals in his last 17 appearances by being shifted out to a left-sided role, albeit with a licence to float at will. With Blackburn's solid banks of four (five when Junior Hoilett helped out) proving impenetrable Rooney got sucked into the trap of playing too deep. When he dropped back to take the ball off Carrick and co the midfield became a minefield of bodies while further up the pitch Javier Hernandez was left to plough a lonely furrow all too often. Receiving the ball with his back to goal is not, it's safe to say, his forte.
It was the introduction of Ryan Giggs at the expense of the disappointing Jones that gave United greater fluidity, in part due to the fact it pulled Rooney away from an area of the pitch United were already commanding.
With Blackburn having dropped off so deep to the extent one supporter complained of a centre-half taking his seat, United had little option but to try to pass Steve Kean's side into submission. A total pass count of 701 to Blackburn's 254 suggests they did. If Paul Scholes' coming out of retirement really is an act of desperation on the part of United then one can only hope England take a good look at themselves between now and the summer and concede that they too are desperate. A pass completion rate of 97.4 per cent that yielded just two misplaced passes, both long, from 76 attempted in his eighty minute stint is testimony to a talent far from exhausted.
Alongside him Carrick made 100 passes, some 52 more than Blackburn's most proficient distributer Steven N'Zonzi. Both players are accused of playing it too safe at times but it is a willingness not to go long or force the play, especially when urged to do so by the crowd, that allows United to exhaust their chasing opponents. It's no coincidence that they score so many late goals. Either, or both, should be on the plane to Poland and Ukraine.
As Ferguson attested post-match his side struggled to create many clear-cut chances prior to Valencia's intervention and the consensus in today's written press appears to be that the game demonstrated little more than United's mastery of eking out wins from wars of attrition but the champions were better than that. Blackburn may have had the look of a punch drunk seasoned boxer, on the ropes for much of the contest, but it was only the quality of United's body shots that allowed for the knockout blows in the final round.
De Gea progress
In Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Hoilett, Blackburn had a handy one-two combination of their own and perversely, given the territorial advantage United enjoyed, it was the home side that conjured many of the game's best chances. David de Gea's nadir in a United shirt came in the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford earlier in the season but with three first-half saves, one for the camera-two outstanding, the Spaniard had Sir Alex humming a bit of Bob Marley. This was his version of the Redemption Song. For a keeper who looks as though he'd do well to be force fed Lancashire's delectable Hollands Pies he showed remarkable strength in his wrists when pushing over Marcus Olsson's stinging first-half volley, albeit after he failed to properly deal with a Blackburn corner.
His manager is in no doubt that De Gea is starting to show why United were willing to part with £18million in the summer having tracked the 21-year-old for two years. "The progress is obvious, everyone can see it. He was really strong in stature and confidence. He was outstanding."
Much has been made of the quality of this Manchester United side in relation to those that have passed before it and while it's true that it's one in transition, it is nonsense to suggest they won't be worthy champions. United have kept more clean sheets than any other side in the top division (16) and have netted the most goals (76), while they've taken 31 points from the last 33 available and won their last seven Premier League games in a row. If this is an average United side then the rest of the Premier League should pack up and go home now.
Let us not forget that Chelsea are in transition too, as are Arsenal. They are fifth and third respectively. United are permanently in transition because they refuse to stand still and it is Ferguson's remarkable ability to keep one eye on the future while living in the present that invariably means whoever finishes above them will be crowned champions. It won't be an issue this season.