Manchester United’s Premier League title challenge ended at Ewood Park in frustration after a stubborn Blackburn Rovers held out for a scoreless draw. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side handed Chelsea the title with little effort and seemingly less desire on a day which confirmed the desperate need for new investment in the squad.
Chelsea, a point clear with a game in hand, must now drop points in two fixtures for United to retain any hope of winning the Premier League. It’s unlikely to happen.
The frustration etched on Dimitar Berbatov’s face said much. The Bulgarian, leading the line in Wayne Rooney’s absence, sought both form and redemption from his many critics. Often criticised for his perceived lack of effort, Berbatov tried and ultimately failed to spark United into life.
Playing alongside Italian teenager Federico Macheda – the youngster’s first start of the season – Berbatov created little and wasted his best opportunity of the afternoon.
After the vigour of United’s first half midweek performance against Bayern Munich, Ferguson’s side returned to the lethargic effort that characterized defeats in Germany and against Chelsea in the past fortnight. With veterans Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville recalled to the side in an unfamiliar formation, it was perhaps unsurprising.
United’s best chance fell to Antonio Valencia, probably United’s greatest attacking threat, with the former Wigan man unable to beat Paul Robinson after being put through one on one with the Blackburn ‘keeper.
Valencia also drew a good save from Robinson when set up by Macheda before Nani, ineffective on the day, failed to test the ‘keeper with another effort in an opening half United dominated while creating few clear-cut opportunities.
Ferguson replaced Macheda with Ji-Sung Park and introduced Darron Gibson for Giggs after the break but neither was able to bring about a goal for the visitors, with the Irishman screwing his only effort tamely wide of target.
Then came Berbatov’s moment as the ball reached the Bulgarian record goalscorer 12 yards out with minutes to go. The weak shot, straight at Robinson, summed up United’s day.
“I think it has slipped away from us today,” admitted Ferguson.
“It is going to be very difficult to win this league. We only have a lifeline if Chelsea blow it. To my eyes they have an easy game against Bolton on Tuesday. We would expect them to win that. It will put them four points clear. That is a big, big gap.”
The Scot, who is rarely able to bring himself to deploy two strikers these days, may never do so again after Sunday’s performance. Berbatov frustrated in a deeper role and Macheda proved highly ineffective leading the line.
“We did not get the result we expected with the amount of possession of the ball we had,” he added.
“The last third was not good enough, I am afraid. We had the chances in the game and the possession but that is not enough. You need to create those chances and take them.
“We had enough opportunities to do that in the last third of the field. It is always a difficult place to come but nonetheless we should have done better.”
Much of the blame also falls at the feet of Nani, who returned to the frustrating pre-Christmas version of the Portuguese winger, rarely beating his opponent and often wasting good positions.
Then there is Berbatov who spent most of the afternoon gesticulating wildly at the referee and his colleagues. It was a day that could have ended his career at Old Trafford.
“That’s a fantastic result for Chelsea,” the Scot added.
United’s 8,000 travelling supporters deserved better.