Football: Champions stripped by Shearer precision

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The Independent Online
Blackburn Rovers. .3

Leeds United. . . .1

AN ANGRY Howard Wilkinson had to be steered away from the match officials at the interval when Rovers led 2-1 from goals that originated with a linesman's decision. 'Offside trap?' growled one Leeds man, afterwards. 'Offside crap.'

On both occasions a long ball out of defence gave Jason Wilcox the opportunity to beat an advancing back four and, once away, neither Mel Sterland nor either of the centre-backs could catch him. Was he offside? The length of the pass was such that anyone following the ball rather than the man could not have offered an argument against the linesman. Wilkinson's anger was probably fuelled by the fact that the second goal, from a free-kick, was taken from a spot several yards further on from where the offence was committed.

All this, really, is so much hot air. At the very best Leeds might have sneaked a draw - Imre Varadi had four chances inside the box and a Rovers' mix-up allowed the ball to hit a post - but had that happened Blackburn would have been very unlucky. Given five good chances, Rovers put three away with the precision that belongs to Alan Shearer as Gary Lineker's successor - for the goal that Wilcox scored could not have been improved upon by the England striker.

On a good pitch, with the frost lifted, Leeds gambled by reverting to their first-choice back four of nine months ago and took a terrible tumble. It may be that only Tony Dorigo of those four now has the speed of turn and recovery necessary for the Premier League. Leeds might have to look to playing a sweeper, with Sterland and Dorigo as wing-backs, if they are to recover defensive confidence. Wilkinson, cooled later, admitted: 'At present we can't think beyond Monday. We need to put two results together and it will be a test of the ability and character of the players.'

There were flecks of silver in the gloom: David Batty was rusty but is probably only two games from his best while Gary McAllister, who looked drained after Stuttgart and Rangers, is bubbling again.

The champions' approach play was excellent, indicating that the midfield is functioning again but their play at the back was erratic and in front indeterminate.

This emphatic victory moved Rovers into a championship-challenging place again and while Shearer continues to score goals they will remain in contention without convincing too many outside of east Lancashire that they will manage the last mile. They do have a cruel April fixture list, finishing with a visit to Manchester United: will the championship be decided on the last day of the League season?

Rovers give the overall impression that all this is happening for them a year too soon but something similar was said of another promoted club last season, Leeds United. Kenny Dalglish has many ways of saying it but, condensed, his message remains the same: sufficient unto the day.

Goals: Wilcox (8) 1-0; McAllister (42) 1-1; Shearer (45) 2-1; Shearer (60) 3-1. Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Wright, Atkins, Hendry, Moran, Ripley, Cowans, Shearer (Sherwood, 85), Newell, Wilcox. Substitutes not used: Marker, Collier (gk).

Leeds United: Lukic; Sterland (Newsome, 72), Batty, Fairclough, Whyte, Strachan, Varadi, Chapman, McAllister, Speed. Substitutes not used: Shutt, Day (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).