Football: Rivals saved as Boro are frustrated

FOOTBALL: Blackburn secure the point that ensures their Premiership survival while Newcastle spoil the party at Old Trafford Blackburn Rovers 0 Middlesbrough 0
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The dogfight to avoid the two remaining relegation places was trimmed to four teams as a result of last night's attritional contest at Ewood Park. Blackburn are now safe, along with West Ham and Everton, while Middlesbrough head for Leeds on Sunday knowing that if they win and Sunderland, Coventry and Southampton do not, a mercurial season will deliver Premiership survival as well as two Wembley finals.

Anything less than victory at Elland Road will mean Bury and Stockport rather than Manchester United and Liverpool on the Riverside Stadium schedule next season. In that event, Bryan Robson's unilateral cancellation of this fixture on 21 December - which led to the FA docking Middlesbrough three points - may be remembered as the decision which cost them their place among the elite.

It is an irony that will not be lost on their supporters that, even if Middlesbrough had lost to Blackburn on the original date, when Robson pleaded illness and injury, they would be two points better off and out of the bottom three going into the final reckoning.

Boro had the better of an occasionally fractious affair, without ever scaling the heights of flowing football to which Juninho inspired them during the first half against the champions in a Mancunian monsoon.

They argued, with some justification, that they were refused a clear penalty with 25 minutes remaining. Colin Hendry cut down Juninho in the area, yet Mr Poll was reluctant to point to the spot. Even when the diminutive Brazilian angrily squared up to the Scot, the normally draconian referee declined to flourish a card.

Juninho nearly secured retribution, and with it three precious points, in the dying minutes. Curling a free kick beyond the massed blue and white shirts and towards the corner of the net from 25 yards out, he was astounded to see Tim Flowers leap to his left and claw the ball away.

Such drama had looked highly unlikely during a dour opening half. Boro, shorn of the firepower that brought Fabrizio Ravanelli 31 goals prior to his injury at Old Trafford, unsurprisingly showed the greater urgency. To the frustration of the travelling Teessiders, Denmark's Mikkel Beck proved a barely adequate understudy.

In the 10th minute, with Blackburn seemingly uncertain whether to go for the kill or settle for the point that would keep them up, Craig Hignett was allowed time on the left flank to weigh up his options. When the centre swung in, the similarly unattended Beck directed a free header wide from six yards.

With Blackburn unwilling or unable to build on early efforts by Kevin Gallacher and Graeme Le Saux, and Boro strangely reluctant to commit men to attack in search of victory, a stalemate ensued for long periods.

The urgency of the situation for both sides was finally translated into meaningful action in the last half hour. After the penalty that never was, Blackburn were stirred sufficiently for Garry Flitcroft to test Ben Roberts on two occasions. Like Flowers, the young goalkeeper was equal to the task.

Robson, whose tired team must become the first visitors to score at Leeds since the same, fateful week at Christmas, said afterwards: "We needed the three points to keep it in our own hands. Unfortunately we've now got to rely on other people.

"Some of the lads thought it was a penalty, but there's nothing you can do. There's no point in harping on about it. We've just got to concentrate on winning at Leeds."

Blackburn Rovers (3-5-2): Flowers; Berg, Hendry, Pearce; Kenna (Ripley, 73), Sherwood, McKinlay, Flitcroft, Le Saux; Gallacher, Warhurst (Fenton, 73), Substitutes not used: Wilcox, Marker, Given (gk).

Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Roberts; Fleming, Pearson, Festa, Blackmore; Stamp, Mustoe, Emerson, Hignett; Juninho; Beck. Substitutes not used: Cox, Whyte, Vickers, Kinder, Freestone.

Referee: G Poll (Tring, Herts).