Manchester United extended their unbeaten league run to 28 games last night, following a hard-fought victory over Blackpool. But they did it the hard way, coming from two goals behind to steal a win with just two minutes of the standard 90 remaining.
The Red Devils scored three times in the final 18 minutes of normal time to overturn the two-goal deficit, largely thanks to a second half master-class from Ryan Giggs, as the Welshmen again rolled back the years to help spring United into action.
Giggs entered the fray with United down 2-0, after two first half headers put Blackpool in the drivers seat. Former United defender Craig Cathcart put the Seasiders in front after 15 minutes, and DJ Campbell headed home 25 minutes later to cement their halftime lead.
However, the arrival of Giggs, on for the ineffective Darron Gibson, energized the league leaders. Once Javier Hernandez entered the fray with 66 minutes gone, United took charge and never looked back.
Chicharito’s equalizer was sandwiched between two strikes from top scorer Dimitar Berbatov, as United fired home three goals in 16 minutes to turn the game on its head, giving Sir Alex Ferguson’s men a five-point lead at the top of the table.
The game was played in front of a sellout crowd at Bloomfield Road, and the fans excitement was clear to see before the game, as they looked to add another big name to their ever-growing list of victims—the scalp of Manchester United would even eclipse that of Liverpool, who was beaten by Blackpool both home and away.
Ferguson fielded a strong side, opting to continue with Wayne Rooney and Berbatov in attack, with the latter coming off his third hat-trick of the season against Birmingham last Saturday.
His two changes saw Gibson come into the side in place of Giggs, with Chris Smalling starting instead of Rio Ferdinand on defense.
Blackpool manager Ian Holloway decided to start want-away midfielder Charlie Adam, despite the club having to reject a written transfer request from the Scotsman earlier this week.
Adam, who has been under intense media pressure in the wake of failed bids from Liverpool and Aston Villa, declared his intention to leave the club. But Holloway, who rejected a £4 million bid from Liverpool as “derisory,” hopes to hang on to his star player until the end of the season.
The growing reputation of Adam was underlined by the fact that Ferguson felt he deserved special attention, as he assigned Fletcher to man-mark their opponent’s playmaker to limit his impact upon the game and allow United to dictate the tempo of the game.
While Fletcher stuck close to his man, Adam still made space to spray passes all over the field, and he helped Blackpool control the game throughout the opening half.
The vibrant atmosphere inside Bloomfield Road certainly played to Blackpool’s advantage, as they were first to nearly every ball, and did not allow United to settle. United failed to impose themselves on the game, and Blackpool’s hard work was rewarded when they took the lead after a quarter of an hour of play, albeit through an unlikely source.
Former United youngster Craig Cathcart met Adam’s in-swinging corner unchallenged, and the centre back made no mistake, heading the Seasiders into the lead.
Bloomfield Road was rocking, and it was no less than they deserved. Holloway again showed why he is fast becoming one of the most respected, and loved, managers in the country, while Adam underlined his importance to the club as he bossed the midfield.
Blackpool continued to press, and United struggled to cope with their approach to the game, with neither Berbatov nor Rooney able to make any impression on the game. Rooney began the game on the left wing, but Ferguson moved him to his more familiar central role after the opening goal in a bid to revitalize United.
In reality, the change made little difference and it was Blackpool who continued to look like the more dangerous team, as they controlled a lethargic United side who fed off scraps for the first 45 minutes. Only a good save from Edwin van der Sar prevented Blackpool from doubling their lead after Vidic headed Adam’s cross toward his own goal, and Elliot Grandin fired over moments later as United was on the ropes.
Van der Sar’s goal was under constant pressure from the home side, and he was forced into action again as he made another good stop off David Vaughan’s long range effort. However, from the resulting corner Blackpool made another breakthrough.
With just two minutes to go until halftime, the unmarked DJ Campbell met Adam’s corner at the back post and Blackpool was in dreamland. United’s woeful defending was exposed again, with Adam’s set pieces causing all sorts of trouble.
The visitors’ unbeaten record was in real jeopardy, and their abject performance did nothing to suggest a turnaround was in the cards.
Blackpool, meanwhile, was as good as United was bad. They richly deserved their lead, outplaying the Premier League’s most successful side in every department, and looked on course for three much-needed points.
However, the league leaders were predictably stung into action at halftime. Gibson made way for Giggs when the teams reappeared, and the evident improvement in United’s play suggests Ferguson’s famed hairdryer treatment was more like a nuclear explosion.
Once Rafael had prevented Blackpool from extending their lead within 30 seconds of the restart, clearing a low cross that would almost certainly have been converted for a third goal, United never looked back.
Giggs began to dictate the tempo of the game, forcing Adam to take a back seat in proceedings. Elegant and elusive on the ball, the Welsh wizard’s creativity began to energize the lackluster United side.
However, it was the home side who arguably should have had a chance to further extend their lead. Luke Varney was in the penalty area when Rafael appeared to bundle the striker over, but referee Peter Walton waved the penalty claims away, to Varney’s disbelief.
On the sidelines, Holloway protested furiously, and he had plenty of reason to; Rafael seemingly barged Varney over with little chance of reaching the ball as the striker stepped past him. United was given a reprieve, and they set about making the most of the decision.
Rooney became more involved in proceedings too. He is still short of his best, but forced a couple of saves as United looked much livelier. But the Blackpool defense held firm, and goalkeeper Richard Kingson was rarely troubled; his save from a stinging Paul Scholes’ drive suggested he was up to the task when called upon.
Ferguson finally responded to United’s continued struggles by withdrawing Rooney after 66 minutes, to the delight of the home crowd.
However, they were not counting on the substitute’s impact on the goal. Javier Hernandez was introduced to partner Berbatov, and the decision almost had an immediate impact, with Hernandez latching onto a Giggs’ pass only to see his shot saved by the legs of Kingson.
United didn’t have to wait much longer for a way back into the match, though. Nani’s run and pass released Fletcher into the area, and his cross was volleyed home from close range by Berbatov. Blackpool’s resistance was broken, and their tiring team could do little to prevent the visitors from getting back on level terms.
Giggs again freed Hernandez a beautiful chip pass, and the Mexican striker did the rest. His first touch was perfect, as he immediately controlled the ball; his second touch passed the ball around Kingson into the net.
United was back on level terms, and Ferguson’s masterstroke had paid off. While Rooney’s struggles continued, Hernandez brought something different to the table, playing on the last line of the Blackpool defense, causing all sorts of problems for the home side with his pace.
Chicharito is fast becoming a legend at United; his finishing ability and impact comparable to that of United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Mexican did himself no harm with his latest cameo either, as the game seemingly changed completely in the visitors’ favor when he entered the fray.
Holloway’s men were looking weary, and appeared unable to withstand the barrage of attacks being launched by the league leaders. With United in the ascendancy, their momentum was temporarily halted following a worrying head injury to Rafael.
The young full back was involved in an aerial collision with Blackpool substitute Marlon Harewood and lay prone on the pitch for several minutes before he left the field on a stretcher, wearing a neck brace, aided by the use of an oxygen tank.
Ferguson allowed Rafael’s worried twin, Fabio, to go down to the tunnel with his brother, as the full back left the field to a round of applause from Blackpool fans as well as the United faithful. Again, Blackpool fans demonstrated their class, and their sportsmanship did not go unappreciated. Fortunately, the injury was not serious and Rafael was released from the hospital later that evening, having sustained a concussion.
Following the long delay, United continued to press for the winner, and the turnaround was complete with just two minutes left in normal time. Berbatov latched onto another Giggs’ pass, before beating his man and firing in his 19th league goal of the season.
Relief and delight were etched across the faces of every traveling supporter, as the Bulgarian scored the third United goal in 16 minutes.
Blackpool was buoyed by 10 minutes of injury time, mainly as a result of Rafael’s injury, but were unable to get anything out of the game and the final whistle blew, consigning the Seasiders to their fifth loss in six games.
United, on the other hand, kept their unbeaten season going, and went five points clear at the top of the league in the process.
An exciting spectacle of attacking football from both sides culminated in an entertaining game.
Blackpool was very unfortunate to not get anything from the game, but did their reputation no end of good, as they continued to mix it up with the top teams in the league.
Man United, on the other hand, was abject in the first half, but again, it was Giggs who helped them cruise through the gears and find a way back into the match when all seemed lost. Hernandez’s poacher’s instincts again got United off the hook, as the Red Devils’ famous "never-say-die" attitude was once again on display.
A cracking match ended with disappointment for the home crowd, but their pride should outweigh that disappointment.
United, meanwhile, still looks inconsistent, and far from their best, but it would take a brave man to bet against them securing Premiership title number 19.
Blackpool: Kingson (8), Eardley (8), Evatt (6), Baptiste (6), Cathcart (7), Vaughan (5), Grandin (7), Adam (8), Taylor-Fletcher (5), Varney (6), Campbell (7); Subs: Phillips (5), Harewood (5).
Man Utd: Van der Sar (7), Evra (5), Smalling (5), Vidic (6), Rafael (5), Nani (5), Scholes (6), Fletcher (6), Gibson (4), Berbatov (8), Rooney (5); Subs: Giggs (9), Hernandez (8), Anderson (5).
Man of the Match: Ryan Giggs, Manchester United
Referee: Walton (5)