Blackburn Rovers. . .1
WITH Jack Walker's millions behind them, Blackburn can acquire virtually anything and anyone they choose - but they do not buy the idea that Manchester United already have the Premiership title under wraps.
Gung-ho declarations have never been Kenny Dalglish's style. Ask how he saw an incident and he is liable to reply: 'From the dug-out.' So it was no surprise, after Blackburn had outplayed Villa to consolidate second spot, that his response to the question of whether United were catchable was the truism that there are no trophies for leading at the half-way stage.
But everyone who hopes the race can still become a meaningful pursuit rather than a procession will be reassured to learn that Dalglish's players, at least, genuinely believe United's advantage can be eroded. To hear Alan Shearer and David Batty, match-winner and most influential player respectively, it was possible to believe that panic was already setting in at Old Trafford.
Shearer, who turned down United and Villa to take the Walker shilling, suggested after scoring his 20th goal of the season that the champions were by 'no means invincible'.
Blackburn, after all, had come within seconds of beating them a week earlier, and now they had narrowed the gap. Having a lead trimmed to 12 points hardly constitutes a crisis, but Shearer's optimism was based on more than bravado.
'United still have to come to Ewood and we also have a game in hand,' he explained, looking forward to today's visit of Wimbledon. 'If we win that, they'll be going into Tuesday's match at Liverpool - always a difficult fixture for United - with the lead cut to single figures. It would be interesting to see how they respond to a bit of pressure.'
Batty, part of the Leeds side who overhauled Alex Ferguson's men in 1992, adheres to the philosophy articulated in the title of a book by his boyhood idol, Billy Bremner - You Get Nowt For Being Second - though Geoffrey Boycott obviously made an impression, too.
'Chasing a team with a big lead is like building a century at cricket,' he said. 'You've got to keep chipping away, adding runs. The fact that we did it at Elland Road shows you should never give up.'
While Blackburn have won 25 out of 33 points with Batty in the team, the task looks at best thankless. United have a stronger, more mature squad than two years ago - bolstered especially by Batty's old room-mate, Eric Cantona - and face no comparable fixture pile-up.
For all that, Blackburn are playing better than at any time under Dalglish. Like Liverpool in his heyday, they closed the game up after Shearer's strike from Graeme Le Saux's fine run and cut-back, Villa threatening only when the visitors tired late in their third match in seven days.
The sight of last season's runners-up again toiling at home - they appeared jaded from the start - was a reminder of the need to invest from a position of strength rather than resting on laurels. Dalglish, with money to burn, enjoys the unique advantage of not having to worry about balancing the books.
Goal: Shearer (38) 0-1.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Cox, Barrett, McGrath, Staunton (Teale, 69); Houghton, Richardson, Townsend, Farrell (Yorke, 61); Whittingham, Saunders. Substitute not used: Spink (gk).
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, May, Hendry, Le Saux; Ripley, Batty, Sherwood, Wilcox; Shearer, Gallacher. Substitutes not used: Wright, Marker, Mimms (gk).
Referee: L Dilkes (Mossley).Reuse content