ROQUE Santa Cruz scored his 20th goal of the season as Blackburn Rovers took a deserved first half lead against title-chasing Manchester United.

The in-form Paraguayan bagged his fifth goal in six games in the 21st minute of a gripping first half to leave the league leaders stunned.

Determined to keep their European dream alive, Rovers began the game with real purpose and might have had a penalty inside six minutes.

Paul Scholes gave the ball away on the edge of his own penalty area and Santa Cruz's shot was deflected straight to Jason Roberts, who suddenly found himself in on goal.

The striker took a touch and then appeared to be caught by United keeper Tomasz Kuszczak, but referee Rob Styles waved away Rovers' penalty appeals.

Mark Hughes' side then had a let-off themselves in the 11th minute when Carlos Tevez fluffed a golden chance to put United ahead.

Wayne Rooney outfoxed Ryan Nelsen on the right before whipping a low cross into the centre but, six yards out and completely unmarked, Tevez missed his kick and Chris Samba was able to smuggle the ball to safety.

That proved to be a costly miss as Rovers then snatched the lead 10 minutes later.

Morten Gamst Pedersen's long throw into the area caused confusion between Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and the ball cannoned off Roberts straight to Santa Cruz, who made no mistake with a clinical finish from 10 yards out.

That lit the blue-touch paper for an explosive 20 minutes.

First, Cristiano Ronaldo fired in a testing free kick that brought the best out of Brad Friedel.

Then, at the other end, Kuszczak did even better to repel a 30-yard screamer from David Bentley.

Two minutes before the break, Friedel then excelled again when he palmed away a point-blank header from United dangerman Ronaldo.

Rovers: Friedel, Reid, Samba, Nelsen, Warnock, Bentley, Emerton, Vogel, Pedersen, Roberts, Santa Cruz. Subs: McCarthy, Dunn, Ooijer, Mokoena, Brown United: Kuszczak, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs, Tevez, Rooney. Subs: Park, Nani, Pique, O'Shea, Foster Referee: Mr R Styles