Football: Quick-fix Rovers feeling queasy

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The Independent Online
GOING INTO the Premiership's penultimate weekend programme, the same, queasy quintet are in the bottom five places they occupied before the reverse fixtures five months ago. To the particular consternation of Blackburn Rovers, it seems that the quick fix offers no guarantee of escape from the quicksand.

Despite sacking Roy Hodgson as manager after 15 games and allowing his successor, Brian Kidd, to throw money at the transfer market, Blackburn start today's match with the already doomed Nottingham Forest - who have not beaten them in nine League meetings - as the highest placed of the three teams in the relegation zone. In other words, exactly where they were when they drew at Forest before Christmas.

During Brian Clough's last, calamitous campaign, Forest were famously said to be "too good to go down". Similar sentiments have been expressed about Blackburn, with "rich" often substituted for "good", but results have proved no respecter of resources or reputations for the 1995 Premiership champions.

Since their game in hand on the other endangered sides, Charlton and Southampton, is a visit from Manchester United on Wednesday, and their final match next Sunday is at Newcastle, Blackburn know that anything less than victory over Forest could leave them requiring their two best wins of the season to survive.

But gnawing away at their self-belief is the knowledge that they have not won for five games, draws at The Valley and The Dell having prevented them edging towards safety as well as encouraging their rivals. Kidd, who has brought some of Alex Ferguson's volatility to Ewood Park, if not his erstwhile boss's Midas touch, therefore faces a test of his nerve and capacity to inspire as much as of his tactical acumen.

When the fact that Southampton have been in their current parlous position more than once in recent years was cited as a factor in their favour, the words "clutching" and "straws" sprang to mind. Yet from the moment they pulled back from 3-1 down against Blackburn, Dave Jones' team have revealed a resilient streak which appears to occur less naturally in the Lancashire club's expensively assembled ranks.

Having propped up the Premiership until Boxing Day, Southampton are now up to the dizzy heights of 17th, despite garnering only seven points on their travels. Today, though, the double-figure barrier beckons at Wimbledon, who have gone nine games without a win since Joe Kinnear had to step aside. If their following at Selhurst Park reaches the anticipated 7,000, Southampton might be tricked into a win that would terrify Blackburn, more so with a home game against Everton to come.

Charlton, fifth from bottom when they received Aston Villa in December, resume hostilities with the fallen leaders with only Forest below them, trailing Blackburn on goal difference and Southampton by two points with just a home match against Sheffield Wednesday to follow.

Villa Park was the scene of Charlton's worst-ever capitulation, 11-1 some 40 years ago, but their management duo of Alan Curbishley and Mervyn Day - ex-Villans both - can look to more promising pointers. Of Villa's seven home defeats under John Gregory, two were to Bolton and Barnsley last spring and two to Blackburn and Coventry this year, highlighting a certain vulnerability against sides needing to win.

Coventry, whose position two rungs above the drop zone is one higher than when they last took on Derby, need a point from Pride Park, or indeed next week's visit of Leeds, to confirm a 33rd season in the top flight. Jimmy Hill, speaking as chairman midway through that sequence, reckoned they should bottle their "monotonous competence". It is precisely the Sky Blues' tendency not to bottle things, so to speak, that has contributed most towards their longevity in the top flight.

Even Manchester United can not match Coventry's unbroken membership of the elite, although such concerns will weigh less heavily on United's minds tomorrow than the need to avenge their last defeat. That came 28 games ago, on 19 December, at home to Middlesbrough, who flattered to deceive after going fourth in the table by prevailing 3-2 at Old Trafford.

Victory would restore United to the top, with themselves and Arsenal then having two games each to play and virtually identical goal differences. They can expect no favours from Boro's management duo of Bryan Robson and Viv Anderson, both former United stalwarts, especially after Arsenal's 6-1 romp in the Riverside's last match.

The loss of four points in United's most recent away games, at Leeds and Liverpool, has seen the initiative pass to the champions, who resume at Elland Road on Tuesday. After the euphoria of reaching the European Cup final, United are finding domestic opponents more resilient than Juventus or Internazionale, and Ferguson may have to don his sports psychologist's cap to lift his tired troops after Anfield.

For the United manager, like the old ally lying in wait at Blackburn, the phrase "must-win situation" means what it says this weekend.

The Juventus playmaker Zinedine Zidane will miss the rest of the season with a niggling knee injury he picked up in the European Cup match against Olympiakos in March. He may need an operation.