IT WAS a rousing send-off fit for kings of Europe. Whether Alex Ferguson’s side deliver against Barcelona on Saturday remains to be seen, but the countdown to Wembley is well and truly underway.
With a record 19th domestic title secured the previous week, the focus was on events at the other end of the table. By sending Blackpool back to the Championship, United played their part in what was a gripping last day relegation battle.
Yet one statistic was lost among the heartache and tears shed by supporters of Blackpool and Birmingham on the most dramatic conclusions to a Premier League season.
By coming from behind to defeat Ian Holloway’s side, United finished their domestic season with a nine-point cushion at the summit. Not since they were crowned champions in 2000-01 have they enjoyed such an easy ride.
Not bad for a team who Didier Deschamps, the Marseille manager, had claimed as recently as three months ago had lacked fantasy.
True, this was hardly a vintage United performance.
Edwin van der Sar was unhappy to concede two goals on his Old Trafford farewell while Dimitar Berbatov was equally upset not to win his personal duel with Carlos Tevez outright for the Golden Boot award.
But United did enough to win with a team which contained several players who will be fortunate to make the bench at Wembley.
Blackpool started the day in the relegation zone on goal difference but they could afford to lose and still stay up if their struggling rivals lost by a bigger margin.
Wigan failed to stick to the script, although Ian Holloway’s side refused to go down without a fight.
Despite their lowly position, Blackpool have established a reputation as an attacking force and it took them less than 30 seconds to carve out a glorious opportunity when Charlie Adam picked out Keith Southern with a low cross.
But Southern somehow stabbed it wide with the goal at his mercy before Gary Taylor-Fletcher failed to get contact on another cross by Adam.
United responded through Rafael da Silva, the Brazilian full-back forcing a save from Matthew Gilks with a 20-yard volley before the Blackpool keeper denied Berbatov his 21st league goal of the season in the eighth minute.
It was only a matter of time before the hosts broke the deadlock, Park Ji-Sung displaying excellent composure to clip the ball over Gilks after muscling his way past Ian Evatt following Berbatov’s flick.
Blackpool were living dangerously and they were fortunate not to concede a 31st-minute penalty when Park was sent sprawling under a challenge by Adam.
But Adam recovered from that slice of fortune to haul his side back into the game as Blackpool showed tremendous character to equalise five minutes before half time.
Vidic was adjudged to have fouled Taylor-Fletcher just outside the area, but Adam made the most of the opportunity as he bent the free-kick around the wall and into the net.
That was just the start of the drama. Ferguson reacted by replacing Rafael at the start of the second half with Chris Smalling, but Blackpool almost took the lead in the 48th minute through another Adam free-kick, saved by Van der Sar.
Taylor-Fletcher, against all-odds, made it 2-1 to Blackpool after connecting with David Vaughan’s 57th-minute cross before Anderson levelled five minutes later with a first-time shot which curled beyond Gilks.
It was downhill all the way for Blackpool after that.
Evatt deflected Chris Smalling’s cross beyond his own keeper before substitute Michael Owen ensured United head for Wembley on a high after a typical finish to make it 4-2.
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