Football: Le Tissier has a ball

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The Independent Online
Southampton . . . . . . . . .3

Dowie 28, Allen 39, Le Tissier pen 69

Blackburn Rovers. . . . . . .1

Ripley 48

Attendance: 19,105

THE NEED was greater than the desire. The threat of relegation and the skill of Matthew Le Tissier raised Southampton's adrenalin, but the fear of losing the opportunity to overtake Manchester United, however briefly, destroyed Blackburn's natural style and even turned Alan Shearer mute. The result may have saved Southampton from relegation, and if it does, their thanks must go to Le Tissier, who was involved in all three goals, including a controversial penalty, that, until news of Wimbledon's win over Manchester United came later, seemed to have all but destroyed Blackburn's title chances. Now it is Rovers who have the slightly easier run-in.

Much as you could argue that Southampton had only got themselves to blame for getting into deep water, who would envy them a perilous end of season fixture list that included games against both of the Premiership contenders. No wonder that last weekend, Alan Ball had decided that before facing the really big guns he had to get a win at Norwich by giving up the five-man defence which he returned to so successfully yesterday. The consequence was the conceding of four goals to Norwich but the reaping of five, including Le Tissier's three.

Apart from having Le Tissier in spellbinding form, the key was to restrain Shearer, who had scored 30 League goals in the season. The task was not given to Matthew Bound, as expected, nor to any defender in particular. But with three centre-backs, Southampton simply outnumbered him.

So much of Southampton's hopes rest with Le Tissier and at last he seems prepared to add responsibility to such glorious natural skill.

That responsibility requires him to roam at will, which yesterday unsettled Blackburn, who failed to stop him bending two early shots ominously close and made Tim Flowers' first few minutes on his return to The Dell thoroughly uncomfortable. Indeed, Southampton's neatness in attack, directed and led by Le Tissier, caused Blackburn to retreat all through the first half.

David Batty and Tim Sherwood found themselves under pressure in midfield, which was a rare experience this season. Batty was far from inhibited, though, and was getting a semblance of control when, after 28 minutes, Le Tissier's deceptive, almost lethargic running and swerving brought the goal that had been threatened.

Iain Dowie both instigated and completed the move, first controlling the ball on his chest in midfield and playing a timely pass ahead to Le Tissier, who initially had plenty of space but had to veer to the left wing to avoid the wily Kevin Moran. A deep, high, superbly weighted cross and Dowie, having run 40 yards, was there to head in from the crowded far-post area.

That this was to be a trying afternoon for Blackburn was emphasised when Sherwood played the ball into the goalmouth for Shearer, who had the space but hit his shot too near Dave Beasant. The rebound went to Mike Newell and his shot flew into the side-netting.

Blackburn's frustration grew and was compounded after 38 minutes when Le Tissier swept by his fellow Channel Islander Graham Le Saux on Southampton's right and chipped the ball forward for Paul Allen to drive in his first goal since arriving from Spurs.

The shot only hit Blackburn when they sat down at half-time. They returned with cold, determined eyes. Only three minutes after the restart, Blackburn cleared a corner. Jason Wilcox quickly inspired a breakaway and fed Stuart Ripley, who had sprinted on ahead of him. Ripley saw Beasant coming off his line and hit a low shot that the goalkeeper managed to let pass beneath him.

Whereas in the first half, Blackburn's full-backs allowed themselves to be pushed back almost to their own goal-line, in the early part of the second, they went forward adventurously, allowing Ripley to take over as commander of midfield.

The game seemed to be moving steadily in Blackburn's direction. Yet to suggest any such thing when Le Tissier could still have a say merely tempted him into further invention. As it happened, all that he was required to do for Southampton's third goal was to hammer in a penalty after swinging over a testing corner which Dowie tried to head in from close range. Sherwood was in between him and goal and the ball seemed to hit his arm, or, as the referee saw it, he controlled the ball illegally. Kenny Dalglish saw it much differently, claiming that the ball hit Sherwood in the face. Either way, Le Tissier stepped up and calmly struck in the penalty.

Blackburn threw themselves into the Southampton half. Beasant somehow clung to most of what was slung at him. Ken Monkou's bulk was like a wall in the Southampton penalty area and even Shearer finally screwed his last and clearest opportunity wide of the post.

(Photograph omitted)