Barmby bewitches Blackburn

Middlesbrough 2 Barmby 45, Hignett 71 Blackburn Rovers 0 Attenda nce:29,462
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The Independent Online
THE English champions were unable to rouse themselves from their European hangover yesterday and were quite simply outplayed and out-competed by the First Division champions.

The hangover dulled any sense of creativity and, with both teams playing three across the back and severely scrunching the midfield, ideas and invention were the only way to find space. Matt Holmes scurried and David Batty buzzed a bit, but they were far too frequently caught in possession. Tim Sherwood only had one shot to show for his day's work. So Alan Shearer could only stand and hope the ball would reach him, and when it did he was admirably policed by Vickers, Pearson and Whyte.

Middlesbrough had the creativity with Nick Barmby, who has now acquired a Beardsleyesque hip shimmy. Craig Hignett produced a first-half cross- field pass that would have graced a World Cup and Jan Age Fjortoft was full of flicks. Even the nominal full-backs Chris Morris and Neil Cox attacked.

Middlesbrough's first goal came on the stroke of half-time. The centre- back Derek Whyte picked out the irrepressible Jamie Pollock, Hignett touched it on to Morris. His pull-back from the by-line found Fjortoft distracting Flowers and Barmby scored from close range. The second, in the 72nd minute, was even better. Fjortoft's backheel to Barmby was exquisite, andMiddlesbrough's record signing slipped the ball through for Hignett to score off the post.

Even before the first goal, Middlesbrough were well in control. Although their flowing football caused problems, they did not create any real chances until the 31st minute when Flowers made a magnificent save from Pollock.

Blackburn came out fighting in the second half, and goalkeeper Gary Walsh bravely withstood an immediate aerial onslaught from Shearer and Colin Hendry. But without Stuart Ripley or Jason Wilcox to provide ammunition, there was little else for Shearer or Mike Newell to jump for. Indeed, the only time Blackburn seriously threatened a goal was in the ninth minute - and that was their own. A sharp save from Flowers prevented Ian Pearce suffering a further televised embarrassment.

After the second goal, Fjortoft and Hignett could have added more and Barmby had a penalty appeal turned down. All Blackburn could muster were five bookings, in a game that Ray Harford maintained afterwards had been a "stalemate", putting Rovers' performance down to their tiredness. On yesterday's showing, it will take more than a rest for the champions to regain their verve of last year, and Harford's admission after the match that the club needed some new faces came as no surprise to those who had witnessed the 90 minutes before.