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United extends lead with scrappy victory

CRACKS finally appeared in Manchester United's defensive armor on Saturday although the champion still rolled on toward the English Premier League title with a 2-1 home victory over struggling Blackburn Rovers.

Roque Santa Cruz's first-half equalizer for Blackburn after Wayne Rooney had put United ahead ended a record run of 14 consecutive clean sheets in the league before Cristiano Ronaldo's firecracker free-kick sealed victory after the break.

United's 10th consecutive league win, achieved despite a ragged performance, moved it to 62 points, eight ahead of Liverpool, which was taking on Manchester City yesterday.

Nicolas Anelka marked the start of Dutch coach Guus Hiddink's spell in charge of Chelsea with the only goal in a 1-0 victory at Aston Villa. Chelsea moved above Villa into third spot but is a distant 10 points behind United.

"We had good possession, good triangles and were dangerous in the box," Hiddink, who took over from the sacked Luiz Felipe Scolari until the end of the season, told Sky Sports.

"The only thing we didn't do was kill the game with the second goal and the second half we leaned back a little too much. But on the other hand, we could have scored more."

Villa has 51 points, six more than fifth-placed Arsenal which gave a debut to record signing Andrei Arshavin in a disappointing 0-0 home draw with Sunderland. The Russian was substituted in the second half.

Stoke City drew 2-2 with relegation rival Portsmouth while Middlesbrough remained in the bottom three after a 0-0 stalemate with Wigan Athletic. Bolton Wanderers boosted their survival hopes with a 2-1 defeat of West Ham United.

United manager Alex Ferguson admitted his jittery side had been given a wake-up call by Rovers who were unlucky not to get a point after hitting the post and having a strong penalty claim turned down.

"We just deserved it, no more than just," Ferguson said. "We gave away a bad goal and that was not indicative of our performances recently."

Rooney struck early with a close-range finish but Rovers stunned the Old Trafford crowd when Santa Cruz nudged the ball past keeper Tomasz Kuszczak and rolled it into the net from a tight angle.

United defender Jonny Evans had a headed goal unluckily disallowed by referee Howard Webb just before halftime while Rovers' Ryan Nelsen stabbed a shot against the post shortly after the interval.

Ronaldo then provided the inspiration on the hour when he whipped a fierce free kick past the flailing arms of Rovers keeper Paul Robinson.

Rovers manager Sam Allardyce was annoyed that Ronaldo had escaped a possible sending off for a kick at David Dunn moments earlier and enraged when his side was denied a late penalty after Morten Gamst Pedersen was pulled back by United's young right back Rafael.


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