Early Doors

Valencia wings United closer to title

Early Doors

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Valencia and Rafael

Fans of Manchester United at Ewood Park had plenty of reasons to be cheerful last night.

Recent dispatches gave them the excuse to take a favoured old chant about Patrick Vieira out of mothballs, which they did with relish.

The journey back to Manchester after the game - their second Monday night fixture in as many weeks - was a short one. Insert your own remark about trains back to Surrey here, if you like.

For once their team had a match refereed by Howard Webb that was not followed by tiresome jibes that the Rotherham official was their man of the match.

Most of all, United were rewarded for their determination and endeavour with yet another one of their patented late shows, which delivered a 2-0 win over a stubborn and spirited Blackburn Rovers.

The Red Devils are now five points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table with just seven games of the season remaining.

If United beat Queens Park Rangers on Sunday lunchtime, then City will go into their game against Arsenal later in the day eight points off the pace.

All of which leaves United odds on favourites to win their 20th league title — 1/8 favourites in fact. City have drifted to 5/1, having been two points clear at the top of the table a month ago.

This may be one of the least awe-inspiring United teams of the past decade — especially to those looking in at them from Europe, where they were consistently found wanting this season - but it seems they remain better than any of their domestic rivals when it counts the most.

One player who is inspiring awe in a red shirt this year is Antonio Valencia. His absence for the first month of the season through injury, coupled with the arrival of Ashley Young, must have been cause for concern for the Ecuadorean, especially considering his six-month lay-off last season.

However, since he returned from that lengthy spell on the sidelines with extra bulk to complement his pace and skill, he has been a real asset for the champions.

The 26-year-old may cut an unassuming, humble figure who would not look out of place in a Michael Jackson (Thriller era) look-a-like contest, but he is ruthlessly efficient.

He remains the player in the United squad who offers the most genuine width, with Young and Nani both far more prone to cut inside.

His performances hugging the right touchline, and even as an emergency right-back at times, have been exemplary of late, since the turn of the year in fact.

Last night Valencia finally converted United's 77 per cent share of the possession into tangible reward when, despite being shepherded towards the byline, he surged into the box and hit a delightfully ferocious swerving strike past Paul Robinson with just nine minutes remaining.

Moments later, the jig was up for Rovers as Valencia set up Young — on as a substitute — to turn and whip a curling low finish home for United's second.

Valencia's exploits take his league figures for the season to four goals — at a rate of one a month since his first of the campaign on Boxing Day - and 12 assists. That haul is all the more impressive when you consider he has started just 16 times in the competition this season, plus a further four appearances from the bench.

There were other stand-out performances from United last night — David de Gea continues to confound his early-season critics with some more fine saves as Blackburn drew a rare blank at home, while former Rovers man Phil Jones continues to push the boundaries of the wildest expressions the human face can pull — but Valencia has more than earned his turn of praise.

Of course, to say this result has put the title race beyond City would be premature. Both teams still have 21 points left to play for. And even if Roberto Mancini's side do not win title this year, they remain on a seemingly inexorable rise.

But, for now at least, Valencia has winged a step closer to this season's title.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I heard the fans chanting and I'm a bit embarrassed because you see what Messi does every week. He's in a league of his own, the best player in the world and possibly ever. It's nice to hear the fans saying that but it has given the lads in the dressing room plenty of ammunition. They give me a lot of stick. They've been calling me Lionel every day. And some of them are even saying they'll be chanting 'GMS' in the Nou Camp soon." - There you have it, from the horse's mouth; Dundee united winger Gary Mackay-Steven is not as good as Lionel Messi.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I am not crazy enough to compare myself with Messi because he is the best there ever was and the best there will ever be. I guess there are worse things than being compared to Messi but I don't look at what he is doing. I just try to give my best for my team." — There you have it, from the horse's mouth; Bayern Munich striker Mario Gomez is not as good as Lionel Messi.

COMING UP: Full live coverage of tonight's two Champions League clashes - Barcelona v AC Milan and Bayern Munich v Marseille — as well as the game in the Championship between Burnley and Birmingham City, all kicking off at 19:45.

Before that, there's full live commentary and stats of the first day's action of the second Test between England and Sri Lanka.

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