Newcastle United. .0
IF Manchester United cannot yet feel the hot breath of Blackburn Rovers on their necks, they can certainly hear them coming up fast behind them. Never mind that this was a scrappy, undistinguished performance. Victory, thanks to a goal from a defender only 14 minutes from time, was all that mattered to the home crowd, who greeted it with rapture.
The result, Blackburn's 10th win in their last 11 Premiership matches, puts them within seven points of the leaders, both teams having now played 28 games. By Tuesday the gap will be four points if Blackburn win at Norwich. And Manchester United have yet to visit Ewood Park. Suddenly we have a title race on our hands.
But how good are Blackburn compared with United? The evidence here was not convincing. For much of the game they were forced up blind alleys and you looked in vain for the sort of ingenuity that might have circumvented the problems Newcastle set them.
Alan Shearer was largely contained by the excellent Steve Howey, and the one clear-cut chance he had came to nothing. Kevin Gallacher engineered it midway through the first half with a clever run to the byline, and when he pulled the ball back to Shearer on the edge of the six-yard box a goal looked a certainty. But in attempting to wrong-foot Pavel Srnicek in the Newcastle goal, Shearer over-compensated and put the ball wide of the post.
Very little else of consequence was created by either side. Blackburn forced the pace but it was a day more suited to the grit of David Batty than the flair of Shearer. Graeme Le Saux gave an outstanding performance at left-back, getting forward at every opportunity and forcing a fine first-half save out of Srnicek from a free-kick. Le Saux also made life difficult for Ruel Fox, Newcastle's recently acquired winger, for whom the acclimatisation process has a little way to go.
He has joined a team in decline, though. Again missing the injured Andy Cole, Newcastle's attack lacked focus, and there were times when they were rattled in defence. Three successive Premiership defeats and elimination from the FA Cup have brought their season to an abrupt end.
None the less, they must have thought they had done enough to secure a draw, when Blackburn finally struck in the 76th minute. Srnicek had just made a superb save from a Kevin Moran header, diving to his left and tipping the ball away for a corner.
When it came over, the ball was partially cleared, but with Newcastle's guard momentarily down, it was knocked back in and landed at the feet of David May. The Rovers defender has scored twice this season in cup competitions, but he could not have chosen a better moment to find the net in the Premiership, wasting no time in lashing the ball past Srnicek.
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