Blackburn put clear by superb Shearer

football: England striker's hat-trick puts paid to West Ham n Norwich d efence cracks at Anfield

They may not be everyone's cup of tea, but no one should doubt the potency of Blackburn Rovers. This win moves them six points clear at the top of the Premiership and at the moment, unbeaten in 11 matches, they resemble an irresistible, if not wh olly loved, force.

No one could accuse them of being short on excitement yesterday, either. Trailing 2-1 with half an hour remaining, they ripped into West Ham in a finale that would have made uncomfortable viewing for their title rivals. After the fourth goal, the Ewood Park crowd turned to the Press box and chanted: "Boring, boring, Blackburn!" in a sarcastic response to their critics.

Almost inevitably, Blackburn's match-winner was Alan Shearer, who stamped his personality on the proceedings in a remarkable manner, considering the lack of possession he had until West Ham's rearguard buckled in the last minutes. The England striker gota hat-trick via two penalties and a ruthlessly-executed goal to increase his haul this season to 23, 20 of which have come in the League.

Yesterday, when his partner, Chris Sutton, was quiet, he was the difference between victory and potential defeat. Afterwards he revealed he had a stomach upset, which rather begged the question what he might have done if he had been fully fit.

For an hour, West Ham's quick thinking and movement had Blackburn resembling a small dog chasing a dog. Ian Bishop was the principal ring-master and, with Matt Holmes and John Moncur also prominent, the centre of the pitch was a claret-and-blue sphere ofinfluence.

Blackburn had taken the lead when Shearer converted a 13th minute penalty after he had been brought down by Ludek Miklosko, but rather than light the blue touch paper it was West Ham who responded to the goal with a spell of football that implied they, rather than Rovers, were the championship aspirants After 32 minutes, Moncur and Jeroen Boere combined to find Tony Cottee on the right and although the striker cut inside there seemed nothing for him but a cul-de-sac built by the Blackburn back four. Thehome defenders clearly thought so, and stood back and admired as Cottee turned and hit the ball into the corner of the net off the post.

This was a shock to a system that is portrayed as nothing if not ruthlessly efficient, but Blackburn had to suffer a greater jolt 13 minutes after half-time. Moncur's shot was diverted for a corner by Tony Gale's challenge and when Michael Hughes' kick came over three home players got in each other's way and the ball fell to Julian Dicks. The West Ham full-back's shot was true and any hope Tim Flowers had of stopping it was lost when it was deflected off Marc Rieper's back and into the top of the net.

This sparked a reaction from Blackburn as volatile as any misplaced experiment by the scientists of fiction. Graeme Le Saux provided a catalyst with a 25-yard free-kick that found the goal via Miklosko's arm and Tim Breaker's legs and Shearer added the explosive element.

Jason Wilcox's pass in the 75th minute was too high for most players to control properly but with one stretch of his right leg Shearer brought it down and into his stride without having to check his pace. Another touch and he thumped it past Miklosko. Precise and powerful skill, it was even more chilling for being made it look so easy.

Three minutes later, Blackburn put the result beyond doubt when Wilcox was tripped in the area by Rieper and Shearer beat Miklosko from the spot for his second hat-trick of the season.

As long as he remains fit, it seems unlikely that Blackburn will surrender enough points to give their rivals hope. Already they are six points ahead of Manchester United - they were 12 points in arrears of the eventual champions at this stage last season. A very happy new year beckons for Ewood.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Gale, Le Saux, Ripley, Atkins (Warhurst, 61), Sherwood, Wilcox, Shearer (Newell, 83), Sutton. Substitute not used: Mimms (gk).

West Ham United (4-4-2): Miklosko; Breacker, Rieper, Potts, Dicks, Hughes, Bishop, Moncur, Holmes Rush, 77), Cottee, Boere. Substitutes not used: Brown, Sealey (gk).

Referee: K Morton (Bicester).

More reports, photograph, page 30

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