Football: Fighting Saints cling to lifeline

FA Premiership: Hughes and Pahars strike back as Kidd sees two- goal lead wiped out
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Southampton 3 Blackburn Rovers 3

Marsden 22, M Hughes 61, Ward 14, Peacock 25,

Pahars 85 Wilcox 47

Half-time: 1-2 Attendance: 15,209

FAIRY-TALE STUFF at The Dell as Southampton fought back with Mark Hughes' first goal for a year and Marian Pahars' debut strike to snatch a point from Blackburn with five minutes left. But fairy-tales can have grim endings, too, and for the Saints relegation edged closer with this result.

Not that it did Blackburn much good, either, after Everton's win at Newcastle, but at least they have a game in hand as the matches run out and the pace hots up.

Blackburn were the more impressive outfit for an hour, not that they needed to be at the highest level to look good against a Southampton defence which dissolves at the thunder of approaching boots. With Kevin Gallacher back from calf injury for his first game in three and a half months, Blackburn took some profit from the horrendous series of injuries which have brought the club so low. The Scot was impressive in everything he did until he tired in the second half.

By then, with a two-goal cushion, Blackburn seemed to have done enough to lift themselves out of the bottom three. But Southampton were benefiting from the arrival after the interval of James Beattie in place of Egil Ostenstad. Beattie carried threat in every thrust towards the Blackburn goal and he it was who tipped the balance, no matter what the scoresheet says.

In the 61st minute, his huge frame forced its way to the byline to get in the sort of centre, low and into the six-yard box, which used to be meat and drink to Hughes. Perhaps, after 51 weeks without hitting the target, it required a prodigious effort of memory and imagination as well as strength, but Hughes smashed the ball home joyfully.

Then, as Blackburn's defence started to do a passable imitation of Southampton's, the home manager, Dave Jones, gambled on all-out attack by throwing in Pahars, whose fresh-faced looks and small stature disguise his 32 international appearances for Latvia. There were 12 minutes left. Pahars, dubbed "Latvia's Michael Owen", needed only seven to mark his home debut with his first goal for the club. Jason Dodd's long ball was headed on by Beattie and Pahars completed the job from close range.

Debilitated as they are by injuries, Blackburn still found no space on the field for Kevin Davies, their pounds 7.25m buy from Southampton, until he replaced Gallacher after 69 minutes. They certainly seemed in no need of him, either, in a first half which was, unsurprisingly, full of commitment and fierce tackles. Even Matthew Le Tissier looked fully involved, and proved it in the sixth minute by clearing Damien Johnson's header off his own line.

However, Blackburn were in front by the 14th minute. A long upfield clearance was controlled by Gallacher and slipped deftly into the stride of Ashley Ward, who surged past Scott Hiley and struck a fine shot across Neil Moss and into the far wall of the netting. The goal was received in near-silence but the roars were soon echoing around the packed stadium as Southampton levelled it only eight minutes later.

Excellent work by Hassan Kachloul, back in the side after suspension and international duty for Morocco, allowed Hiley space and time to deliver a measured centre which Chris Marsden headed home. Like his team's other two scorers, it was a first for Marsden.

The anticipation of better things to come was stilled with only three more minutes played. Jason Wilcox, whose corners had already caused Southampton considerable distress, sent a left-side kick to the near post where the totally unmarked Darren Peacock was left to sidefoot probably the easiest goal he has ever scored.

Immediately Peacock, who was keeping firm control of Hughes, did the job for which he more normally earns his wages by hacking away a Kachloul header that was bouncing towards the net. That escape seemed to have been Southampton's last chance when, three minutes into the second half, Wilcox was also free at the near post for a header from Jason McAteer's cross from the right which put Blackburn firmly, and deservedly, in control.

Then came the Southampton revival which snatched from Blackburn the opportunity to claim their first win at The Dell since 1938. But, as Rovers' manager Brian Kidd readily admitted afterwards, it was something Southampton merited. "We had the chances in the first half to have it all over with, but credit to the Saints, they stuck at it."

Pointing out that, on the basis of points gained since he had become manager at Ewood Park, Blackburn would have been in eighth place rather than facing the drop, he said: "It was a challenge I wanted. I knew when I took the job a lot of people thought I was leaving a comfort zone at Old Trafford. It was a big responsibility. I could have opted for the comfort zone but you aren't being true to yourself, are you? This is a different chapter of my life now, lots of pressure, but a lovely job."

Let us hope his fairy-tale has a happy ending, at least.