A single point. Saturday, lunch time kick-off, the time earmarked as the moment Manchester United would go out to Ewood Park and do the job required of them in sealing a record 19th League title and surpass Liverpool’s tally of 18.
Yet, it was very nearly not to be. A strong side having been named, Sir Alex Ferguson made sure he showed his opponents respect in not wanting to show any complacency in his squad selection, recognising that until it was mathematically true, United were in no way guaranteed to be champions.
The only major change being Tomasz Kuszscak taking position between the posts in place of Edwin Van Der Sar proved to be a decision that may well have been a regret in wanting to rest the retiring Dutch ‘keeper, keeping him fresh for his final most important moments of the season and indeed his career. His Polish stand in having a torrid day, looking nervy and leading to a dominant United side being deflated after going one goal down after 20 minutes.
There on in United looked restless, shaky and frustrated against a resilient Blackburn, and it looked as though it might not be their day until with under 20 minutes left, Javier Hernandez broke through Blackburn’s back four, beating the offside trap and just about latching on to a sublime pass from Ryan Giggs, and although the ball looked beyond him, the young Mexican was able to take a touch away from Paul Robinson who dived out, taking Hernandez with him, conceding a penalty and providing Wayne Rooney with the opportunity to take his team within minutes of being crowned champions.
In front of United’s travelling support, Rooney stepped up to emphatically drive home his spot kick, leading Ferguson’s men to see out the match, with Blackburn not looking to challenge from there on, until the final whistle was blown, and Manchester United were once again crowned Premier League Champions. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Tomasz Kuszscak – Weakest Link
On such a momentous day, I will try and limit the negative statements. However, as is this also an analysis of the match itself, I would not be doing what was expected of me if there was not some sort of critique of certain performances, and the one that is certain to be considered a let down unanimously is that of Van Der Sar’s understudy. If, as expected, Kuszscak is leaving Old Trafford this Summer, he will not have left fans with a pleasant leaving moment.
A nervy performance throughout, his own lack of assurance in United’s goal seemed to filter through to the rest of the defence, looking an indecisive unit at a time when Van Der Sar would have allowed for far more control. It started badly when he failed to make up his mind as to whether or not to pick up a ball that may well have been judged a back pass, early in the first half and from there was never able to regain any confidence, looking out of sorts when coming for crosses and could have dealt with matters better in the build up to the opening goal of the game, looking to chase the ball after it had been crossed and finding himself out of position.
Perhaps a lack of match practise had been to blame, perhaps nerves had played a part knowing his contribution was of importance in helping seal the title, but whatever may have been affecting him, it does not excuse what was a below-par showing at a time when Ferguson will have wanted to keep Van Der Sar fresh in not having to play him when a reliable option is available. For a goalkeeper who has had positive contributions at times in his United career, his performance on Saturday afternoon emphasised the importance in picking an adequate replacement for next season as United’s first choice goalkeeper.
2) Paul Scholes appearance helped to regain control
With a defence that looked short on confidence for various reasons, after conceding an avoidable goal, United came under pressure from Blackburn. Despite having more possession, in terms of attempts, Blackburn were more than a match for Ferguson’s team, with his side failing to make much of the possession they had, even coming close to conceding a second when early in the second half When Olsson rose above Valencia to powerfully head the ball against the post.
However, United held on, refusing to lay low, and when Scholes was brought on for Fabio, it helped to regain a dominance in midfield, bringing a personality that had been there before, knowing what was required for the big occasion, and although still stifled by Blackburn’s resistance, the display began to look more self assured, showing threatening signs until Giggs played a superb pass to Hernandez leading to being awarded a penalty that would seal the title.
3) Ryan Giggs continues to astound
On what might otherwise be described as a day of frustration for Manchester United, fans will no doubt feel reassured that no matter what, there is always a big game personality, who might produce something that may just be enough to see their side through. On many occasions this season, that man has been Ryan Giggs, and once again provided yet more evidence for this on Saturday afternoon, helping orchestrate the moments that led to the all important title-winning goal.
However, this was not his only contribution, in a game that saw the seasoned veteran out run players over 10 years his junior, tracking back to win the ball and providing top quality tackles in fighting for every ball. Saturday, 14th May 2011 marked the day Ryan Giggs won his 12th League title, adding yet more gloss to an already glistening career, there was not a single player in the squad that deserved such praise as he. A great role model on the pitch, and no doubt a superb advertisement for yoga as well.
4) The critics have been answered
The game at Ewood Park certainly seemed to sum up United’s season away from home, often looking indifferent, their consistency at Old Trafford has truly made the difference in what has been an unusual but refreshing season for the Barclays Premier League. Teams have been more competitive than ever, the neutral will have been extremely entertained when teams have been so closely competing. The fact that nothing had been decided so late on was testament to the strength of competition within the league.
Matches found themselves to be far less predictable, with no one game allowed to be taken for granted. With a lack of dominance at the top of the table, some took on this fact to criticise United, despite being top for much of the season it was felt that the squad that had been assembled was far from vintage, and as such were considered lacklustre and poor. However, some will argue that it was simply a case that other sides had also improved, with the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and later, Liverpool emerging as stronger sides.
Indeed, United had suffered with the loss of Ronaldo, as well as being hampered by injuries to important players like Ferdinand and Valencia as well as the retirement of Gary Neville. But regardless of the opinions on Ferguson’s men, what cannot be denied is their desire to win, the hard working attitude and the fact that a game was never lost in their minds, refusing to give in with this belief often rescuing matches. An example is when United travelled to Blackpool. It had looked to be one of those days, a nightmare when Blackpool went 2 goals up early on. However, in the second half a resurgent squad worked their way back into the match, exploiting Blackpool’s weaknesses to pull away with a victory.
Throughout the season this attitude has been evident and for all the faults of the team, some quality football has also been played, hitting form with the return of key players, emphasised most by Antonio Valencia, returning from such a long lay-off to become an ever present threat on the right wing, and providing a new attacking edge to United’s play.
Of course, the emergence of Javier Hernandez is also not to be forgotten, scoring 20 goals in all competitions so far, he has been regarded by many as the signing of the season, especially given the relatively modest sum that was paid for him, in light of other grotesquely more expensive signings, such as that made by Chelsea in January for a certain Spanish striker.
Naturally, Sir Alex Ferguson will not take the final game of the season against Blackpool lightly. The fact the title has already been won, he will no doubt want to end the season with a victory on which to receive the trophy officially, setting up a wild celebration amongst the United faithful.
The fact the title has been sealed will now mean all the focus will be on the Champion’s League final at Wembley, and with the game against Blackpool as well as Gary Neville’s testimonial still to come, these games will provide opportunity for Ferguson to analyse which of his squad will be starting at Wembley on 28th May, as well as keeping his players fresh with some game time before the big occasion.
As is Sir Alex Ferguson’s way, he will be looking on to the next one. For now though, his players will be allowed to revel in their achievement, bask in their glory for what they have done. To overhaul Liverpool’s tally of 18 titles is something that many will never have foreseen. A remarkable feat, but as is Ferguson’s way, he will soon be looking on to the next opportunity, and soon will be looking to the next season, it what will provide a new challenge. But for now fans will enjoy such glorious times of happiness and celebrate the victory of a side that has been written off throughout. 19 times. Well and truly deserved.
Men of the match: Phil Jones for Blackburn. Ryan Giggs for Manchester United.