A CONTROVERSIAL refereeing decision helped Manchester United to avoid a shock defeat against Blackpool as the Premier League leaders overcame the greatest threat so far to their unbeaten run.
Blackpool led United 2-0 inside the last 18 minutes at Bloomfield Road , but Alex Ferguson's side mounted a remarkable comeback to win 3-2, extend their advantage at the top of the table and preserve their prospects of emulating Arsenal's "Invincibles" of 2003-04.
Yet, two goals up in the second half, Blackpool were denied what appeared to be a penalty when Luke Varney fell under a challenge from Rafael Da Silva. Peter Walton, the referee, waved play on, and a brace from the in-form Dimitar Berbatov either side of a strike from Javier Hernandez turned the match on its head, the winner coming after 88 minutes.
"In the first half we were battered and we couldn't handle Charlie Adam," Ferguson said. "His corner kicks are worth £10m. We changed it at half-time, brought on Ryan Giggs, started to penetrate and, in the end, ran out deserved winners.
"The team kept going, playing their football, penetrating, and they got their reward. Hernandez's pace and timing of runs are fantastic. He has made a tremendous impact."
Craig Cathcart, who joined Blackpool from United last year, had headed in the opening goal in the sixteenth minute. Ian Holloway's side added a second before the break after Adam's cross was turned in at the far post by DJ Campbell.
The ineffective Wayne Rooney, who earns more in a year than the entire Blackpool squad, was replaced by Hernandez in the second period. Da Silva was forced off with a head injury.
After dominating the opening 45 minutes in the first meeting between the clubs since 1974, Blackpool tired as the game wore on. While United demonstrated their character, after the break, Blackpool could argue that their opponents would surely not have recovered from a 3-0 deficit had Holloway's team been awarded and converted a penalty.
United hold a five-point advantage over Arsenal, the second-placed side, each having played 23 games.
Ferguson added: "It has told every one of my players they can achieve a lot if we can play to our best."
After Berbatov belted home United's winner, his 20th goal of the season and his fifth in four days, 10 minutes of injury-time were then added for treatment to Rafael.
The Brazilian took a heavy blow to the head in an accidental collision with Marlon Harewood and was stretchered off with concussion, the only downside of the evening for Ferguson. "He has gone to hospital and will have some X-rays," revealed the United chief. "He has got some concussion but hopefully there is no other damage. It was a worrying moment because he is just a kid." Meanwhile, Ian Holloway is taking a break from the daily grind of top-flight football -- he is going to Chorley with his wife.
The laugh-a-minute Blackpool boss admitted he had been left shellshocked by an amazing week, in which his side put the distraction of Charlie Adam's future to one side to produce a brilliant performance against United, only to end up suffering heartbreak.
"I am going away with my wife -- to Chorley," he said. "There is a golf course there. I need to free my brain."
Holloway might want to switch his phone off when he gets to the small Lancashire hill town. It is hard to imagine Liverpool not coming back with a further bid for Adam given his superb performance in last night's 3-2 defeat at Bloomfield Road.
Despite slapping in a transfer request yesterday, Adam gave everything in the Blackpool cause, providing the corners from which Craig Cathcart and DJ Campbell put the Tangerines on course for an improbable victory.
"Charlie will go down in folk history at this club," said Holloway.
"I might even make a statue of him myself, although it would have to be wood. I can't afford bronze."