Blackburn Rovers. . .0
THE alternative Birmingham summit failed to produce a goal here last night, despite the presence of some pounds 5.6m worth of strikers in the shape of Dean Saunders and Alan Shearer.
Blackburn, who are now within a point of Norwich at the top of the Premier League, had greater cause for satisfaction than Aston Villa. After running the first half, Kenny Dalglish's team were pressed back repeatedly in the second. But with Colin Hendry outstanding at centre-back, they restricted Villa mainly to long range.
From one such effort, 12 minutes from time, Ray Houghton appeared to have beaten Bobby Mimms with a 25-yard shot that swerved wickedly. At least two players blocked the goalkeeper's view, yet he managed to touch the ball on to the crossbar and a defender completed the clearance.
It was no less than Rovers deserved. In only one respect, a lack of pace of the kind Ron Atkinson can summon in abundance, were they inferior to Villa. Both managers have spent heavily, and Villa's rise to fourth place will be seen as a vindication of their outlay, but anyone expecting Rovers to slide into mid-table mediocrity may be in for a surprise.
Sky Sport's equivalent of sod's law guaranteed that with the country's two hottest forwards in opposition the game would be goalless. Shearer did not show the incisive form that has brought him 15 goals, for which Shaun Teale must take credit. However, he worked hard at preventing Villa from building from the back, and generally looked a more complete player than Saunders.
The Welshman was unfortunate that Hendry gave the kind of display, which were he to repeat it regularly in the coming months, would threaten even Richard Gough's place in Scotland's defence. In the first half, though, Hendry's was largely a containing role, as Rovers dictated the tempo.
Shearer was on target after only seven minutes, thumping a drive into Nigel Spink's midriff. His only real chance came just seven minutes later following Stuart Ripley's curling cross from the right. For once, the England man's header lacked conviction.
Almost immediately, Saunders's speed seemed certain to carry him clear, only for Hendry to snake out a long leg and make a crucial tackle. Still Rovers looked the more likely scorers, Mike Newell clipping the back of the bar with a header on half-time.
Stephen Froggatt, suffering a recurrence of an ankle injury, gave way to Bryan Small after the interval. The substitute not only shackled Ripley, but also found time to join in Villa's attacks as they at last began to test Rovers' mettle.
Saunders eventually escaped Hendry and Kevin Moran in the 56th minute. Seizing on a half- cleared corner, he struck an angled drive which Mimms parried but could not hold. The crowd were encouraged and Villa inspired, although cries of 'goal' stuck in thousands of throats when Dalian Atkinson missed a free header.
On the hour, Atkinson broke clear in the inside-right channel. As he drew back his right boot he found that Hendry had again made ground rapidly to block an almost certain goal. It was not all Villa, Newell forcing Spink into what looked the only contender for save of the night with a crisp shot which the Villa keeper saved one-handed as he swooped to his left. Seven minutes later, even that example of agility was eclipsed by Mimms.
Such a frenzied match was not an appropriate stage for a nostalgic return by Gordon Cowans, who at 33 was bringing his silky skills to Villa Park for the first time as an opposition player. Nor was it a great night for the punter who, according to the satellite channel, stood to scoop pounds 75,000 from a 14-game accumulator bet in the event of a Villa victory.
Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Atkinson, Froggatt (Small, h/t). Substitutes not used: Yorke, Bosnich (gk).
Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Wright, Sherwood, Hendry, Moran, Ripley, Cowans, Shearer, Newell, Wilcox. Substitutes not used: Marker, Wegerle, Collier (gk).
Referee: H W King (Merthyr Tydfil).
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