BLACKBURN Rovers came within minutes of recording a famous victory against Manchester United in this thriller at Ewood Park.

Inspired by the magnificent Brad Friedel, Mark Hughes' side took the lead against the champions-elect, courtesy of Roque Santa Cruz's 20th goal of the season, and appeared to be heading for all three points until Carlos Tevez popped up with an 88th minute equaliser to get the visitors off the hook.

However, Hughes can be proud of his players' efforts on the day after they pushed United all the way in a breathless North West derby.

Needing a positive result to keep their European dream alive, Rovers emerged with real purpose and might have had a penalty inside six minutes.

Paul Scholes carelessly 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 get 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-minute period.

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

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

As half-time approached, Friedel then came to Rovers' rescue again, reacting brilliantly to palm away Ronaldo's point-blank header.

Sir Alex Ferguson threw on Nani in place of Ryan Giggs at the beginning of the second half in the hope his presence might inject more urgency into United's play, but Rovers continued to defend tigerishly.

Ronaldo cracked a shot against the base of the post following a mistake by Steven Reid, and Friedel pulled off a miraculous save to thwart Tevez following yet more United pressure.

However, it was far from one-way traffic as Santa Cruz went close with a header, and a Pedersen cross-shot was almost turned in by Nelsen at the far post.

Still United kept coming, but Friedel saved the day again, this time denying Rooney in a one-on-one.

Eventually something had to give and Friedel was finally beaten in the 88th minute, Tevez rising to score with a header after Scholes had flicked on a corner.

Rovers: Friedel, Reid, Samba, Nelsen, Warnock, Bentley, Emerton, Vogel, Pedersen, Roberts, Santa Cruz. Subs: Mokoena (for Vogel, 86) McCarthy, Dunn, Ooijer, Brown.

United: Kuszczak, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs, Tevez, Rooney. Subs: Nani (for Giggs, 46) Park, Pique, O'Shea, Foster Referee: Mr R Styles