United find an extra gear

 

Visitors to Old Trafford tend to employ one of two strategies. Either they try to take on Manchester United in a shooting match or they settle for containment in the hope of grabbing a goal here and there. The way United are playing at the moment it really makes little difference. Blackburn Rovers yesterday arrived full of solid defensive intentions but eventually went the way of others, roundly defeated 4-0 and grateful not to have lost by more.

It seems that no sooner do teams come within striking distance of the champions than Alex Ferguson's players slip into an extra gear. Just over a week earlier Blackburn's 1-0 win against Chelsea had established them as United's closest pursuers. Now their first defeat of the season away from Ewood Park has left them behind Chelsea in third place, while Manchester United have opened up a three-point lead.

Chelsea, the only side so far to have taken a point from Old Trafford this season, must be glad they are not having to face Manchester United in their present free-scoring mood. United have scored 34 goals in their last nine games and 23 times in November alone.

At least Blackburn entered the spirit of things yesterday by contributing two own goals after their lone striker, Chris Sutton, had been sent off by Alan Wilkie for bookable fouls on Henning Berg in the first half and Nicky Butt in the second.

Roy Hodgson, the Blackburn manager, considered Sutton's dismissal "remarkably harsh" but the reality was that the player could have been shown a red card for the way he went over the top as Butt challenged for a 50-50 ball. Then again the earlier lunge from Butt which caught Tim Sherwood amidships was not the afternoon's friendliest gesture.

For those hoping to deny Old Trafford its fifth Premier League title in six seasons, or at least keep the championship open until the spring, the most ominous aspect of United's victory lay in the fact that it was achieved without Paul Scholes, Ferguson's most in-form player, who was starting a threematch suspension.

The United manager responded to Scholes's absence by playing Ole Solskjaer as a third striker with Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole. Solskjaer responded with two excellent goals. A similar approach had destroyed Sheffield Wednesday 6-1 at the beginning of the month and Cole, while he produced another excellent performance in the van of the attack, might have extended yesterday's winning margin to a similar length.

Almost as a matter of routine Ferguson shrugged aside any attempt to award United the championship before Christmas. "It's still early season," he said, "and I don't think the league has really started yet." Try telling that to David Pleat and Gerry Francis.

Hodgson's approach to the match was that of a manager who did not believe his side could win an open contest. Certainly this was not the Blackburn that had won 4-0 at Aston Villa in the first week of the season.

With the wings furled, a five-man midfield shielding a four-man defence and nine players frequently withdrawn behind the ball Sutton never threatened United. And Berg's efficiency in marking him released Gary Pallister to support the United attack.

For a time Manchester United found themselves caught up in a crowded midfield with no obvious avenues of approach. Gradually, however, the regularity with which Ryan Giggs and Solskjaer were taking it in turns to run wide on the left, often supported by Phil Neville, unsettled Blackburn's stifling cover.

The first chance arrived when Tim Flowers failed to reach a centre from Gary Neville on the opposite flank, Cole's header bouncing just wide of an empty net, but when Manchester United went ahead just past the quarter-hour it followed a more likely build-up. One of Gary Pallister's long passes found Solskjaer in the inside-left position, he played the ball inside to Sheringham, who then bemused the defence with an insolent chip of a return, leaving the Norwegian to beat Flowers with a firm left-footed shot.

After that Blackburn were undone. Hodgson had Kevin Gallacher, who usually partners Sutton in attack, on the bench but declined to bring the Scot on until his team were three down.

Manchester United's second goal, nine minutes into the second half, followed another long ball, this time one of Schmeichel's huge clearances which Sheringham flicked on to send Solskjaer surging clear of the centre-backs for another emphatic finish.

Sutton departed three minutes later and two minutes after that Phil Neville's hard, low centre was diverted past Flowers by Stephane Henchoz. That was bad luck but Jeff Kenna had less excuse for the aberrant back pass which caught Flowers out of position to complete the scoring six minutes from the end.

Manchester United: Schmeichel, G Neville, Pallister (Poborsky 70), Beckham, Butt (Johnsen 65), Cole, Sheringham (McClair 75), Giggs, P Neville, Solskjaer, Berg. Subs Not Used: Van Der Gouw, Clegg. Booked: Butt. Goals: Solskjaer 18, 53, Henchoz 60 og, Kenna 85 og.

Blackburn Rovers: Flowers, Kenna, Sherwood, Pedersen, Ripley (Bohinen 62), Sutton, Wilcox (Duff 75), Flitcroft, McKinlay (Gallacher 60), Croft, Henchoz. Subs Not Used: Fettis, Broomes. Sent Off: Sutton (56). Booked: Sutton.

Referee: A B Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).