In an instant, an impending stalemate at Ewood Park became another step to the title for Manchester United, as Antonio Valencia broke the deadlock in the final 10 minutes to spur the defending champions onto victory over Blackburn, 0-2.
The home side knew that the key for their day would be to secure things defensively, while trying to snatch chances on the counterattack or off set pieces. Steve Kean fielded a formation that shaped out in a Christmas Tree formation. Yakubu started as the center forward. The left side of the Blackburn formation was marshaled by the Olssons, Marcus as an advanced midfielder, and Martin at left back, as well as Jason Lowe as a left-sided central midfielder.
Sir Alex Ferguson started in a rather conservative 4-5-1 formation. This evolved as the match progressed. Chicharito Hernandez was the only true forward, while Wayne Rooney played as a left midfielder who drifted inside upon attack. This gave Patrice Evra the license to move forward and provide width down that side of the system. Antonio Valencia was the primary right wing player, though as the match remained knotted at 0, Rafael did become deputized to overlap to the byline. Phil Jones, Michael Carrick, and Paul Scholes all provided a staunch central midfield that hampered much of Blackburn’s intentions through the middle; this was important given the narrow nature of the Blackburn formation.
The first half lacked quality chances, as you might expect for this type of fixture at Ewood Park. While Blackburn have not at all been stingy this season, they seem to find a way to tighten the screws when faced with an opponent like the Red Devils. Manchester United had most of the possession throughout the match, but failed to find the key pass on most occasions. They did create an opportunity for Chicharito in the 11th minute, as a cross from the right found the Mexican International at the near post. His redirection found the woodwork, careened off of keeper Paul Robinson, and nearly crossed the line if not for quick reflexes.
Blackburn never really had the continuity to sustain an attack through any of the match, but at the end of the first stanza they forced two quality saves from keeper David de Gea. Off a corner kick, the ball came to Marcus Olsson who smashed a shot that de Gea barely saved with his outstretched hand. The ensuing corner saw Grant Hanley try to head a ball past de Gea. The ball was dropping beneath the bar, but the Spaniard nudged it over the crossbar.
Entering the 2nd half scoreless, there was only a slight shift tactically from either team, and that was Blackburn. Steve Kean asked Marcus Olsson to drop further to the left and back, morphing into a 4-4-1-1 shape when in defensive organization. Most of United’s attacking fervor came from the side of Antonio Valencia in the first half, and with this bunkered 8, the United attack was more pronounced but less effective. The Red Devils even invited Blackburn to attack at times, engaging them to expand their spatial coverage and thus opening areas for Rooney to exploit. This was not fruitful though.
Ferguson realized in the 60th minute that Blackburn was not even concentrating on keeping possession. Rovers were in a clear defensive posture, clearing to Yakubu, and hoping the big man could hold the ball long enough for Hoilett and Marcus Olsson to join the charge. He took off Hernandez and Jones, choosing to bring Welbeck and Giggs into the match. Giggs moved out wide left, allowing Rooney to slide behind Welbeck in a 4-4-1-1 shape. Later on, Scholes was also spelled with Ashley Young. This gave United 3 pure attacking midfielders, Valencia specifically attacking the right, but Giggs and Young allowed to roam to find areas to work.
Blackburn held strong until the 81st minute. Valencia utilized a tactic that few could have expected – the quick, sharp angle shot. He not only hit it with pace, he used the outside of his right foot, bending the ball through a tight lane available to the far post. Robinson had edged towards his near post, preparing for the cross that never came. Instead, Valencia’s sniper shot caught him caught the keeper off guard, and quickly put United in the driver’s seat.
From that point forward, you never had the sense that Blackburn would get back into the match. Their let-up in intensity after the opening goal set the stage for Young to fully secure the three points 5 minutes later. Young accepted a pass from Valencia centrally just outside the area. He pivoted, came a little to his right, and fired a shot that beat Robinson near side to attain the final scoreline.
Sometimes tactics are the reason for a victory; other times, it’s just a moment of magic. For United it often seems like it’s one of those moments that appears out of nowhere. This night, it was Valencia pulling a rabbit out of his hat to send United 5 points ahead of Manchester City in the title race.