Blackburn Rovers. . . .0
IT IS ironic that a game with two of English football's most lethal and feared strikers on parade should come within nine minutes of finishing goalless. Blackburn can point to the fact that they lost Alan Shearer with a jarred back after only half an hour, but despite being awash with the memories of 15 goals in their last four home games Rangers were more than happy to settle for Les Ferdinand's scrambled winner.
With the pounds 2m Tim Flowers making his debut in the Blackburn goal, perhaps it was more appropriate that this was to be a defender's day. Apart from being, blamelessly, stranded when Ferdinand touched home the winner, Flowers did enough to justify his manager Kenny Dalglish's after-match verdict that he will be a 'good buy'. In the Rangers goal Jan Stejksal just underlined what a good buy he has been.
Colin Hendry had a rather ominous first-minute taste of Ferdinand's pace but recovered his nerve to steady the visitors' defence and keep Rangers at arm's length until the 81st minute. Stejksal was in action right up to the final whistle, stretching athletically to touch away Le Saux's cunning lob, then diving bravely into a flurry of feet to tidy up the resulting corner.
But matters had taken an ominous turn for Blackburn - and possibly England - just on the half-hour when Shearer pulled up as he ran for a through ball. Running repairs were carried out on the striker's back, but after a further five minutes of half-paced efforts he was substituted by Le Saux.
Both sides' determination to persevere with an open and constructive approach gave us an old-fashioned classic with end-to-end play. Surprisingly, the momentum for Blackburn's pressure in the second half came from David Batty's hitherto latent desire to thrust deep into enemy territory in a creative role.
When Ray Wilkins had to leave the pitch after 68 minutes with what seemed to be a recurrence of his recent knee injury, Batty leapt out of character into the role of the game's most constructive performer. He was considerably aided by the caution aroused by Kevin Gallacher's pace and the intelligent running of Mike Newell.
But it was not enough to save the day. In the 81st minute Ian Holloway, Wilkins' replacement, returned Trevor Sinclair's left-wing corner into the six-yard box where Ferdinand scrambled the ball beyond the stranded Flowers. It had been a close-run thing or, as Rangers' manager Gerry Francis put it, their hardest game of the season. Harder than last week at Old Trafford? Yes, was his reply.
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