Football: Blades hold bloodless Blackburn

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Blackburn Rovers. .0

Sheffield United. .0

PERHAPS it was the strangeness of it all. Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United get within sight of Wembley once every blue moon and frankly, yesterday, their prospects of scoring seemed just as remote. This was the most anaemic of scoreless draws.

The replay will take place on either 16 or 17 March (the date depends on the fate of Sheffield Wednesday at Derby tomorrow) and no one who was present at Ewood for this FA Cup quarter-final will be the slightest bit surprised if penalties are required to split these two apart. At times you suspected the flattened earth at one end of Ewood would have the stand on it completed before anyone would score.

Blackburn managed only one shot of note the entire match and that came with two minutes remaining when Tim Sherwood drove in from 25 yards. In the previous round they had played indifferently and defeated Newcastle with a late goal from Roy Wegerle, but this time the plan refused to work as Alan Kelly, in the United goal, reacted quickly enough to push Sherwood's effort aside.

That preserved the Blades' prospects of reaching the semi- finals for the first time in 32 years and, having won only one match away from Bramall Lane in the League this season, they will be the more satisfied with the result. Their enthusiasm will be tempered by the suspension of Brian Deane. Likewise, Sherwood will also miss the replay.

Even before a ball was kicked yesterday there was little in the recent pedigree to suggest that the 1993 Cup winners were on view. Between them the clubs have won the trophy 10 times yet you would have to be in your seventies to have been around to witness the most recent successes. It is 65 years since Blackburn last took the Cup back to Ewood while United have to go back 68 years for the last time a Blade lifted the Cup.

Tactics had a safety-first look to them, United adopting a five-man defence and Blackburn rarely pushing enough men forward to give Wegerle or Mike Newell sufficient support.

Both teams had altered their back lines - Kevin Moran returning for Rovers and Dane Whitehouse replacing the injured David Barnes in United's rearguard - yet the disruption did nothing to affect the efficiency of the offside traps. The opening quarter was a staccato stalemate compressed into an area 20 yards either side of the half-way line that threatened to exhaust the arms of the linesmen.

It had to get better and it did. But not by much and few moments rose above the dross around it. The first came after 21 minutes when Stuart Ripley, turning suddenly in the area when he received a throw-in, completely deceived Whitehouse. His shot, a left-foot effort aimed for the far corner, beat Kelly but also slid a fraction wide.

That was by far the best moment of the first half. Wegerle spent most of the time on the floor, his boots in need of a longer stud, while Deane was so shackled by Moran and Colin Hendry that he would have achieved total anonymity had his frustration not spilled over into a late challenge on the latter that earned him a booking. A more positive contribution came from the United striker four minutes after the interval when he swept past both his markers and then fired just wide after a run of 40 yards.

In terms of shots on goal the visitors were clearly the superior. Franz Carr almost broke the deadlock when his cross-shot skimmed along the Blackburn goal-line but as the game wore on it became increasingly apparent neither team would score.

'It was not a good game,' Kenny Dalglish said. 'The final ball would not go where it was intended to.' The Blackburn manager then expounded on his fears that the tie might need artificial stimulants to settle it. 'The penalty shoot-out should be stopped,' he added. 'It devalues the competition.'

In this match, at least, it would have greatly enhanced it.

Blackburn Rovers: R Mimms; D May, A Dobson, T Sherwood, C Hendry, K Moran, S Ripley, P Andersson (M Atkins, 82 min), R Wegerle, M Newell, J Wilcox. Sub not used: N Marker. Manager: K Dalglish.

Sheffield United: A Kelly; K Gage, D Whitehouse (P Beesley, 70 min), J Hoyland, B Gayle, J Pemberton, F Carr (A Cork, 87 min), C Hartfield, I Bryson, B Deane, G Hodges. Manager: D Bassett.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).