Blackpool 2-3 Manchester United
United moved five points clear of the chasing pack in the Barclays Premier League title race, but this was a far from straightforward three points as the Reds had to come back from a two-goal deficit and a below-par performance for almost 70 minutes of this clash at Bloomfield Road.
Ian Holloway’s side were 2-0 up and the better side at half-time after headed goals from poorly defended corners from Craig Cathcart and DJ Campbell. But with the home side’s tempo and energy expended, and with substitutes Ryan Giggs and Javier Hernandez providing pace and penetration, the final 20 minutes was all one-way traffic. Dimitar Berbatov got the first of two goals after 72 minutes, then Hernandez equalised before his Bulgarian strike-partner completed the dramatic turnaround with two minutes of normal time remaining – although there were ten minutes of added time to survive due to a serious head injury suffered by Rafael.
Sir Alex Ferguson described Blackpool as a “revelation” in the Premier League this season; that didn’t stop him selecting an attacking trident of Nani, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney, suggesting a need to be positive from the off. With Paul Scholes recalled for his first game since the Champions League victory over Rangers in November and his penchant for a deep-lying, quarter-back role, there was licence for the front five to press forward. That meant Darron Gibson, in for Ryan Giggs, and Darren Fletcher, replacing Anderson, getting forward where possible. Rafael returned from a one-game ban for a red card at Tottenham Hotspur in place of John O’Shea.
Such has been Blackpool’s success, particularly that of their captain Charlie Adam, that they have had to fend off three bids from three different clubs, including Liverpool, for their talisman. But such distractions would be swatted away for the visit of United and 1,500 Reds travelling to Bloomfield Road, a tight ground with the kind of close atmosphere that intimidates some teams.
The pre-match excitement was palpable; for locals this fixture, without wishing to patronise, embodies their return to the top-flight while, for United, it was one of the most eagerly-anticipated away trips of the season. The Reds began with large swathes of possession and Scholes pulling the strings in the opening ten minutes; a neat early exchange down the left between Gibson, Evra and Rooney ended with a cleverly-disguised Rooney pass and a blocked Evra cross. But it didn’t last.
The Reds’ rhythm was disrupted when Adam clattered into Patrice Evra, leaving the left-back dazed and bloodied. The Frenchman had barely returned to the field and certainly wasn't in position for a Blackpool corner that Adam swung across on 16 minutes. It was met with a thumping header from Craig Cathcart, which flew past Edwin van der Sar. It hurt more as Cathcart is an Academy graduate and former Young Player of the Year at Old Trafford, who joined the Tangerines only after a persuasive telephone call from Ian Holloway to Sir Alex.
Despite the shot in the arm for the home team, United still found space – whether created by passing and movement, or offered by an open Blackpool side – and momentarily at least upped the tempo. But there were still scares at the back, not least as Nemanja Vidic’s attempted headed clearance from Adam’s cross forced van der Sar into a reactionary save.
Sir Alex switched from a 4-3-3 formation to 4-4-2, but United’s openings were still mere half-chances. A Rafael header five minutes before the break was easily held by Richard Kingson in Blackpool's goal, while a brilliant piece of control from Berbatov was not be matched with an equally sublime finish. Blackpool looked fearless and went straight up the other end and grabbed a second. Van der Sar saved well from David Vaughan’s shot, but from the resulting corner United were caught out again as DJ Campbell headed home at the far post to leave Sir Alex’s men with a mountain to climb and an unbeaten record looking alarmingly exposed.
Ryan Giggs was called from the bench at the break, but almost immediately United could have conceded a third were it not for Rafael’s excellent positioning for Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s cross. Giggs did make a difference, though, especially as Blackpool ran out of steam. Another veteran, Scholes, got United’s first real attempt of the half just after the hour when Kingson struggled to hold his fizzing shot. A second change followed soon after that as Javier Hernandez replaced Rooney. The Mexican broke the offside trap almost straight away to race onto Scholes’ long pass and, aiming to put the ball between Kingson’s legs, the Ghanaian keeper got the slightest of touches that prevented it reaching the goal.
Blackpool looked dead on their feet, while United’s tails were up. And on 73 minutes the Reds' probing paid off when Nani’s clever pass played in Fletcher and the Scot squared for Berbatov to tap home from close range. Within two minutes the Reds were level as Hernandez once again beat the offside flag to meet Giggs’ precision through-ball with a perfect finish to make it 2-2 in a remarkable turnaround.
Sadly Rafael was stretchered off, his head in a neckbrace, with just over ten minutes left - although later reports suggest he is suffering only from concussion - leading to a lengthy delay. Fletcher dropped in at right-back, while Anderson came on in midfield.
United pressed on and the incredible comeback was sealed with two minutes of normal time left when a breakaway attack allowed Berbatov to evade an increasingly jaded Blackpool back four to run through and steer a left-footed shot past Kingson. The additional ten minutes of added time, mainly to cover the extended stoppage for Rafael’s injury, did little for already battered nerves. But United's work was done.
Sir Alex’s men were far from at their best in Blackpool – certainly not reaching the heights of the win over Birmingham - but the last 20 minutes at least is the other side to United; a resilient, relentless United that just will not give up.
Edwin van der Sar He couldn’t do much about either goal as both were unmarked, close-range headers from corners. He made a few fine stops, especially in the first-half with United really under pressure.
Rafael Plenty to do defensively. Made one brilliant intervention at the start of the second-half and was subject to a penalty claim from Blackpool, but it would perhaps have been harsh. Sad to see him go off after a clash of heads. Early reports suggest it's just concussion.
Chris Smalling Like the rest of the back four he was in for a tough night. This wasn’t as easy as his outing against Birmingham at the weekend. That's for sure.
Nemanja Vidic Bloodied and battle-weary, Vida will perhaps be annoyed – personal pride rather than culpability – at the defence conceding two headed goals. Almost turned the ball into his own net too at one point.
Patrice Evra United’s defence came in for a bit of a battering, physically and in football terms, in the first half. Pat got a bloody lip for his troubles, but battled on.
Darron Gibson Sacrificed at half-time and it was a necessary change to give the team more balance on that left side.
Paul Scholes He started promisingly, then dipped in the middle of the match. But with Giggs and Hernandez on and acting as outlets to his wide range of passing, his options increased.
Darren Fletcher Ran his socks off and put in a real shift at right-back too when United had over ten minutes of injury time to survive.
Nani His ball to Fletcher for United’s crucial first goal was brilliantly timed. Got the ball rolling for the Reds. Far more effective with Giggs as a counterbalance on the opposite flank.
Dimitar Berbatov He’s having his best season at United by some distance; he just can’t stop scoring. Good job, too. There was the usual array of sumptuous flicks and tricks, but it’s his clinical finishing that is starting prove so valuable.
Wayne Rooney Making his 300th appearance for United, it just wasn’t quite Wayne's night, although people may point to that left-sided role not being his ideal position. The plus-point is that he's still to hit top form.
Ryan Giggs (on for Gibson 46) The difference he made cannot be underplayed. He brought purpose, poise and penetration to United’s attack. He only played for a half but he could easily have bagged United's Man of the Match award.
Javier Hernandez (on for Rooney 66) He was a buzzing ball of energy when he came on, always looking to get in behind a tiring Blackpool defence. And it worked. Perfect substitution.
Anderson (on for Rafael 80) With the game tightly poised, Anderson came on to help United find the all-important winner.