Football / Race for the Premiership: Shearer brings Rovers level: One goal enough for Dalglish's team to push title struggle with Manchester United to a new intensity

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Blackburn Rovers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Aston Villa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

BLACKBURN ROVERS maintained their pursuit of Manchester United but came alarmingly close to surrendering the initiative, not only in this match but in the struggle for the Premiership title, in the face of a revitalised second-half showing from the Coca-Cola Cup winners.

Blackburn began with the sort of style and power which demanded and got its usual crowning glory - a typical goal from Alan Shearer - which theatened to produce a comfortably clear-cut victory.

But they lost their way almost as badly as the thousands of Villa supporters who were kept away by an impassable M6 and could have driven off into the sort of diversion that leads in the opposite direction from League titles in the second half.

But as Blackburn's manager, Kenny Dalglish, said: 'Results are more important than performances at this stage of the season.'

A shot by Tim Sherwood well saved low down and any number of confident early touches had the three sides of Ewood Park chanting 'Are you watching, Manchester?' to which the obvious answer was 'Yes', even before Shearer's decisive strike.

It was a prototypical Blackburn goal, Jason Wilcox finding space on the left as he did throughout the first half, and Mike Newell heading down his perfectly flighted cross with practised nonchalance.

Although there were more Villa than Blackburn feet in a congested sector of the penalty area, it came as no surprise when Shearer was the first to react and lashed the bouncing ball right-footed past Mark Bosnich for his 30th Premiership goal of the season.

With David Batty patrolling midfield like a particularly belligerent bull terrier and his front men finding space at will, it seemed that more goals must follow as inevitably as one new stand follows another at Ewood.

Instead, a Villa side that began with just Dean Saunders up front, but which was obliged to reorganise first by falling behind and then by Saunders' failure to reappear for the second half. The vastly experienced Ray Houghton, a fringe player at Villa Park of late, came back into the action like he had never been away. His presence and distribution from his old spot on the right side of midfield threatened to turn the match Villa's way and the Premiership title race Manchester United's.

It was Houghton's probing and his link with Dalian Atkinson, who had spent the first half as a peripheral figure, that shattered Blackburn's peace of mind. One example of their combination produced a fierce shot from the 19-year-old Graham Fenton that the previously unemployed Tim Flowers did splendidly to turn around the post.

Fenton almost got a lunging boot to another product of the Houghton-Atkinson axis and David May had to scramble another dangerous attack to safety, while Flowers made another fine save from Tony Daley.

Blackburn, so dominant in the first half, hardly created an opening in the second, although they also had a substitute who almost made an immediate impact when Alan Wright, replacing the subdued Stuart Ripley, slammed a late volley past the post.

By then, a second goal would have flattered Rovers. Level on points but with a game extra played and an inferior goal difference, they still face a formidable task to overhaul even a faltering United. If Villa had made them pay for their loss of momentum last night, it would be considerably tougher than that.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, May, Hendry, Le Saux; Ripley (Wright, 70), Batty (Warhurst, 78), Sherwood, Wilcox; Shearer, Newell. Substitute not used: Mimms (gk).

Aston Villa: (4-3-2-1): Bosnich; Barrett, Teale, Ehiogu, Staunton; Fenton, Richardson, Townsend; Atkinson, Daley; Saunders (Houghton, h/t). Substitutes not used: Cox, Spink (gk).

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).

----------------------------------------------------------------- PREMIERSHIP TOP TWO ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Man Utd 36 23 10 3 72 36 79 Blackburn 37 24 7 6 58 29 79 ----------------------------------------------------------------- REMAINING FIXTURES ----------------------------------------------------------------- MANCHESTER UNITED: Saturday: Wimbledon (a). 25 Apr: Man City (h). 1 May: Ipswich (a). 4 May: Southampton (h). 8 May: Coventry (h). To be arranged: Leeds (a). BLACKBURN ROVERS: Saturday: Southampton (a). 24 Apr: QPR (h). 27 Apr: West Ham (a). 2 May: Coventry (a). 8 May: Ipswich (h). -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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