Last updated : 08 January 2003 By Editor
The Guardian

The Worthington Cup meant enough to provoke regret, indignation and pride in Blackburn Rovers. The draw here in the first leg of the semi-final is gratifying but Graeme Souness's side were not decked out in beatific smiles. It might have turned out even better for them.

With two minutes left, Lucas Neill strode into the Manchester United box and went down as the pursuing Mikael Silvestre closed in. It might have been a penalty but it was certainly no dive, yet the referee Uriah Rennie booked the Australian. If the yellow card is not rescinded, Neill will miss the return in a fortnight.

Souness stuck with James McEveley, a 17-year-old centre-half being used at left-back. His inexperience occasionally got him into trouble against David Beckham and he was booked, but his confidence and skill did not flag. Souness listed the teenager's attributes, including good looks, before adding light-heartedly: "The bastard has got so much going for him."

There was no jollity for United who, with Roy Keane sidelined with a hamstring strain, failed to impose their will. It had been Blackburn last month who, by collecting full points from a home match with them, showed that United's season may still be problematic even if it has stopped being calamitous.

Last night's events proved that it remains good sense to try to carry the game to Sir Alex Ferguson's team. They do not punish that temerity as they once did, particularly not when Ryan Giggs, out of form, flickers on the margins.

There was a subdued atmosphere at Old Trafford and Ferguson was keenly aware of the heavy schedule his squad is undergoing. It was almost half-time before they threatened, when Paul Scholes's header was dummied by Giggs and Ruud van Nistelrooy ran through for a shot placed much too close to Brad Friedel.

When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came on for the ineffectual Giggs and Diego Forlan was introduced, Ferguson was not just flexing his squad to exercise them. United were striving for a winner yet never proved themselves the masters. In stoppage-time Solskjaer came bounding in from the left and flighted a drive past Friedel which hit the covering McEveley. Blackburn were a conundrum to which United found no answer.

The Mirror

So it's honours even at the halfway stage, but Blackburn will have left Old Trafford last night feeling considerably happy with themselves ahead of the return leg in a fortnight's time.

For the second time in less than three weeks, Graeme Souness's side thwarted their more illustrious opponents and took a giant stride towards their second successive Worthington Cup final.

But it is Rovers, not United, who will approach the decisive second leg in upbeat mood, armed with that all-important away goal as well.

The Worthington Cup may be last on United's list of priorities but being so close to the final, particularly with the prospect of meeting arch rivals Liverpool there, ensured Ferguson's troops were fired up for victory. David Beckham, rejuvenated after a month out with a broken rib, continued his irresistible form from the start with a series of sublime crossfield balls and teasing crosses.
United's short passing and interplay in the opening stages was nothing short of mesmeric, with Beckham, Juan Sebastian Veron and Paul Scholes carving Rovers open with their movement and vision.

Yet United did not have to wait long to make the deserved breakthrough. In the 58th minute, van Nistelrooy held the ball up and laid it off for the advancing Beckham on the right.

Beckham steered in a low cross which Friedel managed to smother only as far as Scholes and the ball trickled over the line.

But United's joy was short-lived as Rovers drew level within three minutes. Gillespie found himself with time and space to cross from the right for David Thompson to steer a powerful header past Barthez.United would have snatched victory but for McEveley's brilliant chested goalline block from sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in injury time.

The Times

SIR Alex Ferguson proudly boasted in his programme notes that he had never suffered defeat in eight domestic semi-final ties since taking charge of Manchester United in 1986, but that record hangs in the balance after his team failed to make home advantage count last night.

Ferguson's newfound affection for the Worthington Cup was put to the test by a resolute Blackburn Rovers side with no intention of surrendering the trophy they won at the Millennium Stadium last February.

Ferguson's gripe about a lack of passion was unkind to Blackburn, who displayed that quality in abundance. James McEveley, their 17-year-old full back, displayed more than anyone on an evening he will not forget. In only his seventh senior outing, he showed that, like his more heralded contemporary, Wayne Rooney, he has scant respect for football's establishment, earning a booking for the second of two crunching tackles on David Beckham. He also made a goalline clearance in stoppage time to prevent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scoring.

Barthez, making a swift return from a thigh strain, was also tested from distance by Neill, who had caught Giggs dithering 40 yards from goal. The United player's malaise, which has been apparent for several months, was such that Neill spent much of the first half in opposition territory, also sending in a cross that narrowly eluded the outstretched leg of Dwight Yorke, who, along with Cole, was striving in vain to find the opportunity to prove that Ferguson was wrong to sell him to Blackburn last year. Ferguson gestured to his players to keep their concentration, but his advice was not heeded.

Within three minutes Blackburn were level as Thompson, the smallest player on the pitch, was left unmarked to steer a perfect header past Barthez from Keith Gillespie's cross. It was to be the impressive Thompson's last significant act before he departed with an ankle injury, inflicted by Beckham.