Manchester United2 - 3 Blackburn Rovers: Birthday blues for Sir Alex Ferguson

THIS was not how Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to mark his 70th birthday. Despite the choir that lined up beforehand to wish him a happy one, and his promise yesterday morning to remain as manager of Manchester United for three more years, his injury-hit team passed up a perfect opportunity to finish 2011 on top of the Barclays Premier League.

Manchester United2

Berbatov 52,62

Blackburn Rovers3

Yakubu 16 pen, 51; Hanley 80

If Manchester City beat Sunderland today, they will move three points clear of second-placed United, whose woeful first-half performance cost them here. They looked like they had done the difficult bit by coming back from two goals down, but a late winner by the Scotland international Grant Hanley, after a mistake by goalkeeper David de Gea, eased the pressure on Steve Kean.

Blackburn’s manager seems to get more from his team away from Ewood Park, where vitriol pours down on him from the stands. Five days after drawing with Liverpool at Anfield, they saw off the champions with a combination of disciplined defending and flawless finishing. Their three goals, two of them by Ayegbeni Yakubu, came from their only three attempts on target.

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Ferguson, who recently phoned Kean to offer him his support in what have been difficult times for the Blackburn manager, must have been horrified by his own side’s performance, in the first half at least. True, they were depleted by injuries, with Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic among a long list of absentees, but the midfield partnership of Ji-Sung Park and Rafael created next to nothing.

United were flat, one-paced and quiet, like the crowd, and could hardly complain about the goal by which they trailed at half-time. When Dimitar Berbatov pulled down Christopher Samba in the box, the referee had no hesitation in awarding a penalty, which Yakubu converted by sending De Gea the wrong way.

Despite enjoying most of the possession, United were posing no threat in the final third, a failing Ferguson sought to rectify by replacing the anonymous Javier Hernandez with a half-fit Anderson. But just six minutes into the second half, they found themselves two down.

Yakubu, with his back to goal, accepted a throw-in and turned his marker all too easily. After bundling his way past both Michael Carrick and Phil Jones, the prolific striker lashed a powerful left-foot shot between the goalkeeper’s legs.

The stadium was shocked into silence, but United hit back immediately. Straight from the kick-off, they swept the ball wide to Antonio Valencia, whose cross led to an angled shot by Rafael, headed over the line by Berbatov. The home side got their equaliser just after the hour mark. When Valencia cut the ball back from the byeline, Berbatov swept it past Mark Bunn.

Thereafter, it looked for all the world as though a United winner was inevitable, especially as they laid siege to Blackburn’s goal, but for an inexplicable error by De Gea. When he flapped at a corner to the back post, Hanley had two free headers, the second of which went in.

It must have been a sore one for Ferguson, who told MUTV earlier in the day that his 70th birthday was prompting no thoughts of retirement. “I hope I have a long time left,” he said. “As long as my health stays up, I would hope to have another three years at the club. I am still enjoying it. We have defeats but compared to what we have achieved, they are minuscule.”