Edwin van der Sar's duties extended well beyond goalkeeping on the night Sir Alex Ferguson's team booked a Carling Cup final against Wigan Athletic. Both clubs should be grateful for Manchester United's goalkeeper preventing television cameras filming the disorder that took place inside the tunnel at half-time, with Robbie Savage inevitably at the epicentre.
The absence of any incriminating evidence will leave the Old Trafford crowd - and the Football Association - with little but educated guesswork about the clashes. After Rio Ferdinand deliberately barged into Savage, the Blackburn midfielder pursued him down the tunnel, followed by nearly every other player plus the substitutes, several coaches and every steward in the vicinity.
The stampede was reminiscent of Turkey's World Cup qualifier against Switzerland in November, except nobody had the presence of mind in Istanbul to block out the cameras. A fractious night extended to the post-match interviews, with Blackburn's manager Mark Hughes complaining bitterly about Graham Poll. "Some referees enjoy the celebrity status a bit too much," he said. "I think Graham Poll was under the impression that 61,000 people came here to see him."
His anger stemmed from Poll's decision to award a 42nd-minute penalty after Ruud van Nistelrooy flicked the ball against Zurab Khizanishvili's hand. The excellent Brad Friedel saved Van Nistelrooy's effort but Hughes was still smouldering with injustice at the end, not least because Ferdinand had escaped punishment for a carbon-copy incident. "There were decisions like that all night," he said. "There needed to be a balance but we never got that and we're very upset."
But when the dust settled Sir Alex Ferguson was entitled to say the better side had won over the two legs. These are strange times when the Carling Cup is regarded at Old Trafford with dewy-eyed fondness. To Ferguson it used to be a nuisance in an already congested fixture list. These days he cannot be so choosy and there was jubilation at the final whistle. Out of the Champions League before most people had finished their Christmas shopping and 14 points adrift in the Premiership, he will need a trophy if he is to get a favourable end-of-season verdict from the Glazers. He will get his chance in Cardiff on February 26. "We deserve to go through," he said. "Blackburn made us work hard and they made the referee work hand, but we got there and I'm delighted."
Wild celebrations greeted another slender Manchester United victory at Old Trafford last night although this time Gary Neville was a model of decorum as the home supporters and Sir Alex Ferguson reacted to confirmation of a place in the Carling Cup Final as though their futures rested on it. In many respects, of course, it did.
The elevation of the Carling Cup in United's list of priorities emphasises the diminishing returns for Ferguson, but having heralded the competition as "a great opportunity to mark this season as a successful one" the performance of his team against a Blackburn Rovers side low on strikers but high on endeavour proved the 64-year-old Scot still has the capacity to leave his players hanging on his every word. United shone only in parts yet fought for the right to face Wigan in the all-Lancashire final throughout the semi-final second leg, though perhaps too literally during the interval.
While goals from Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha secured their date at the Millennium Stadium, several of their players, notably Rio Ferdinand, could be set for an appearance before the FA's disciplinary committee after an alleged brawl involving, surprise, surprise, Blackburn's Robbie Savage on the way down the Old Trafford tunnel. Though both managers attempted to downplay the incident afterwards, and in fairness they were still out on the pitch while every outfield player sprinted to take part in a melée witnessed by hundreds of supporters, the sight of two shadow-boxing ball-boys near the entrance to the dressing rooms gave the game away.
"As he was on his way to the dressing room, Rio clipped Robbie," said the Rovers manager Mark Hughes. "I don't know why he did it, but there was no need. Robbie then asked him why he had done it and everyone else ran in just to make sure nothing happened." Television evidence, which was not replayed by Sky, could yet prove if that was the case. Should the FA launch an investigation into what occurred, then it should not overlook the contribution of referee Graham Poll towards the simmering passions of the players, especially those of a Blackburn hue.
The Tring official harshly penalised Zurab Khizanishvili for deliberate handball inside his own penalty area two minutes before the break, and then allowed Ferdinand to escape with a similar offence in the second half, but it was the decision not to punish Van Nistelrooy for venting the frustration of seeing his spot-kick saved by Brad Friedel on the heels of Steven Reid and into the back of Savage that left the visitors enraged.
Long gone are the days when Manchester United could afford to treat the League Cup with disdain. On the pitch and in the stands they celebrated their passage to the final against Wigan Athletic on February 26 with a zeal that they once reserved for Europe.
In these impoverished times, Sir Alex Ferguson will take any trophy he can get his hands on and so will his players, to judge from their approach throughout a fiercely contested semi- final tie that almost boiled over when Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Savage clashed in the Old Trafford tunnel at half-time.
A classic cover-up operation meant that reports of the incident were sketchy, with the gestures of an excitable ball-boy about the only indication that any punches had been thrown, but the decisive blow on the pitch came from Louis Saha, who scored his fifth goal in the competition this season early in the second half.
Earlier, Ruud van Nistelrooy had restored United’s aggregate lead and had a penalty saved by the excellent Brad Friedel. Blackburn worked hard, but, missing the injured Craig Bellamy, they lacked quality in attack and had only a goal from Steven Reid to show for their efforts.
Over the two legs, United did enough to merit their place at the Millennium Stadium and would have won comfortably but for the heroics of Friedel in the Blackburn goal.
As against Liverpool on Sunday, they ultimately made light of a shortage of quantity as well as quality in midfield, Ryan Giggs having limped off after 13 minutes with a hamstring injury. Ferguson knows that the present position, with Paul Scholes, John O’Shea and Quinton Fortune out, is not tenable and he hinted at signing a midfield player on loan, with the latest targets rumoured to be Johan Vogel, of AC Milan, as well as Thomas Gravesen, of Real Madrid.
On a Burns Night as fiery as any whisky from the Western Isles, the country's most famous Scot, Gordon Brown included, steered Manchester United to the 13th final of his reign.
These days League Cups are no mere trinkets at Old Trafford and last night Sir Alex Ferguson saw Manchester United deliver an impassioned display that, but for Brad Friedel's brilliance, would have seen them settle matters long before the final whistle. They had too much pace and too much skill for a hard-working but essentially leaden Blackburn side crucially deprived of Craig Bellamy.
Sometimes, as when Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Savage clashed in the tunnel during the interval, there was a surfeit of emotion but if the Wigan chairman, Dave Whelan, did not receive the final with his former club, Blackburn, he dreamed of, then one against Manchester United would serve almost as well.
For Hughes, the night's great irony was that having produced a series of remarkable saves to keep United at bay, including from a penalty, Friedel should have conceded the second to what was essentially a miskick from Louis Saha.
It was quite an eventful first half for Ruud van Nistelrooy, who scored, missed a penalty and was possibly fortunate to be on the pitch for the second half, having flattened Steven Reid with one tackle and pushed Savage to the floor, which began the sequence of events that led to the tunnel brawl. When he returned after the interval, the Dutchman produced a header from six yards that forced Brad Friedel into one of the saves of the season, reacting brilliantly to push it clear.
Savage, who had put Wayne Rooney in a headlock in the first leg at Ewood Park, made rather more of Van Nistelrooy's challenge than was necessary and as he walked off with Rio Ferdinand the England defender appeared to say something and then sprinted for the dressing room. Savage, showing a rather more nifty turn of speed than he had during most of the tie, sprinted after him, followed by the rest of the teams. Thankfully, given what happened when Arsenal visited, nobody appears to have been armed with pizza.