United hand Chelsea title initiative

Berbatov struggles match Red Devils’ agony as they misfire at Ewood Park

MANCHESTER United’s Premier League title challenge is all but over as a season that promised so much just a fortnight ago is in danger of total collapse.

Despite dominating almost all their clash with Blackburn at Ewood Park, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men rarely looked like making their pressure tell. Paul Robinson needed to make two excellent saves to deny Antonio Valencia before half-time, but afterwards, with United so desperate for the points, the former England No 1 had surprisingly little to do.

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Not for the first time recently, Dimitar Berbatov was a major disappointment and the fact Rio Ferdinand was feeling his groin towards the end suggested a problem England manager Fabio Capello will not want.

Although United had not actually lost their last three games, that is how it felt. Even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted Chelsea had been handed the advantage in the title race. Chelsea, who beat Aston Villa 3-0 at Wembley on Saturday to reach the FA Cup final, now lead the table by one point with a game in hand over United.

Ferguson said: “That’s a fantastic result for them (Chelsea). They’ve got a home game against Bolton on Tuesday which they will be expected to win.”

Ferguson rued the missed chances, particularly one by Valencia just before half-time. He added: “He should have scored. It was a golden chance and at a good time, five minutes before half-time. We had the chances in the game. We dominated possession but you have to create those chances and take them.”

Ferguson was looking for a reaction after a 3-2 midweek win over Bayern Munich was not enough to see them trough to the Champions League semi-finals, the German team progressing on the away goals rule and although United

gradually took control, on a sunny afternoon, the first half took on the air of a pre-season contest.

On Blackburn’s part, the lack of urgency was understandable given their position firmly wedged in mid-table. For United it was an altogether different story.

They should have been in front at the break.

Valencia was the recipient of both clear-cut chances. The first was created by Federico Macheda, making his first Premier League start of the season. Valencia charged on to the young Italian’s neat pass with purpose and let fly with a powerful effort that was heading for the bottom corner until Robinson made a fine low save. Berbatov was the architect of the second. Ferguson had little choice other than to declare his trust in the Bulgarian given Wayne Rooney was missing with an ankle injury. But it was a largely unhappy afternoon for United’s 30.75 million record signing, until he threaded a pass through to Valencia. The South American eagerly latched on to the chance but again Robinson denied him, this time at close quarters.

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As there was no immediate injection of focus or direction after the interval, so Ferguson decided to sacrifice Ryan Giggs, who admittedly had been fairly anonymous. Outstanding earlier this season, the Welshman has struggled for form since recovering from his broken arm. His replacement, Darron Gibson, is at least prepared to shoot, as he proved in midweek. The Irishman’s aim was a bit askew. But at least he tried as United’s season began to crumble around them.

That Paul Scholes chose to play on as Berbatov was down and apparently injured after a crunching collision with Ryan Nelsen seemed to tell its own story about the discontent in the United camp. Berbatov’s unhappy afternoon continued when he failed to test Robinson, having been set up by Neville and then fired wide after a long throw from the full-back bounced straight through the Blackburn defence. It was almost an epitaph for his entire United career.