Dalglish homes in on title

Ian Ridley spells out the issues as Blackburn and United go to the wire
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The Independent Online
THE mood has turned, and the receptions accorded the two championship challengers this afternoon will starkly reflect that. Anfield, it seems, wants one of its favourite sons to win the Premiership title while Upton Park will echo to jeers for one of their own who is now disowned.

Kenny Dalglish takes his Blackburn Rovers side to Liverpool sure to be warmly received; Paul Ince goes to West Ham with Manchester United expecting to be cold-shouldered. The two atmospheres betray with whom the popular sympathy lies.

The issue is simple but complicated by the undoubted anxiety of the final day. If Blackburn win they are champions. If they draw or lose and United win, then Old Trafford will be home to a three-peat, a third consecutive title.

There have been doubts about a more functional, less attractive Blackburn Rovers all season, particularly as regards how they might fare in the European Cup with little subtlety about them. But such have been their signs of vulnerability in recent weeks, that many are now urging them to the post.

None likes to see a gallant horse finishing lamely, which has looked the case on occasions recently as they have seen an eight-point lead eroded after eking out only seven points from five matches. Blackburn's gritty 1-0 win over Newcastle last Monday should have restored some confidence, however. They are likely to retain the same team today.

Should Blackburn succeed at Anfield, none there will begrudge them the achievement. Dalglish won five championships as a Liverpool player and three as their manager, but the 14th of his career - five titles also came with Celtic - would surely be his greatest personal achievement. As Liverpool manager he was extending Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan's work; at Blackburn he built a club from next to nothing.

"I don't think there's much doubt who Liverpool fans would want to win the title. If they can't win it themselves, it would be a close call between Blackburn and Everton," Dalglish says. Anyone but Manchester United.

All of which is a little hard on United, even allowing for the residue of sourness from the Eric Cantona affair and the Roy Keane stamping in the FA Cup semi-final replay. Their chase has been admirable with so many important players missing. As the Nottingham Forest manager, Frank Clark, said: "They have done it with reserves, which is worrying for the rest of us."

Ferguson will retain Ince in his midfield even though West Ham fans will noisily show that they have not forgiven him for once announcing before any transfer that he wanted to join United; this though six years have passed. Last season the jeering went beyond any right of complaint when bananas were thrown. Roy Keane, after an ankle injury, is likely to return for United.

Liverpool, who remain without Rob Jones, Neil Ruddock and Stig-Inge Bjornebye, have all but been on holiday for the past month, losing 3-0 to West Ham in midweek in the match that kept the London team up. West Ham, although without Tony Cottee and Jeroen Boere, are likely to provide the stiffer opposition. United well remember their 1-0 defeat at Upton Park by an already-relegated team when they were unsuccessfully vying for the title in 1991. Draws seem possible in both matches, leaving it a Blackburn Sabbath.

It is likely to be a black Sabbath for Crystal Palace. They have seen their relegation rivals inch to safety one by one so that only Aston Villa remain within range. It leaves today a series of meaningless matches that make a nonsense of the FA and Sky Sports' disruption of the football public's spectating habits.

Palace travel to Newcastle needing a victory to have any hope of staying up, the hope being that Aston Villa will lose to Norwich. Newcastle need a win to have a chance of a Uefa Cup place, which would be just desert for their splendid football of the early season.

Whatever happens to Palace, it seems likely that their manager Alan Smith will be parting company with them. It scarcely seems fair on an honourable and decent man, but fairness sometimes counts for little in football. Especially on the season's final day.

Walker's triumph, Page 7