Football: Rovers dig deep to keep United in check

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The Independent Online
Blackburn Rovers. . . .0

Manchester United . . .0

BACK to the top go Blackburn, and the rich man is seriously into the championship stakes. Jack Walker said Rovers would make even Manchester United seem second-best. Well, not quite yesterday, but a stoic draw was good enough to keep up the momentum.

Earlier in the week Blackburn had passed over another chance to restore their position above Norwich when they were involved in an unlikely goalless draw with Aston Villa. That was the first of two rare days when Alan Shearer failed to hit the target. United know the feeling well enough, having seen Mark Hughes do much the same but more often.

Of recent times, though, Hughes's goalscoring instincts have revived, even for Wales, who had begun to tire of their manager's apologetic description of him as 'technically the best'. Hughes had scored twice against Liverpool the previous weekend and but for that United would have remained off the pace and less ready to treat yesterday as potentially a clash of prospective champions. In the event, neither Hughes nor Shearer could break a grim stalemate.

The title possibility, albeit still a long way off, certainly brought about some grudging respect on both sides. The power and pace of Shearer and Mike Newell had Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce calling on their most rugged tackling. Indeed, Bruce soon had his name taken for hurtling into the back of Shearer several yards inside the Blackburn half. That was some indication of United's concern about letting that prolific scorer get anywhere near their goal. Equally, Tim Sherwood was cautioned as the game encompassed the rough and the smooth, at first in equal proportions.

At times neatness and enterprise overcame the more boisterous aspects of the game, though ruggedness remained the theme. A nine- pass move by United ended tamely but emphasised the possibilities, with Ryan Giggs, naturally, fully involved as he was in most of their promising moves. After only seven minutes he wittily slipped behind three Rovers defenders in the penalty area to collect Denis Irwin's through-ball. Bobby Mimms, who was outstanding throughout, stifled the shot, and before long Shearer and Stuart Ripley swung the game briefly back into Rovers' grip.

An important, leaping save by Peter Schmeichel from Ripley's driving shot maintained the balance, though Shearer felt hard done by when not even receiving a free-kick as he struggled and fell in trying to gain possession against Pallister's weight.

Such rumbustious games are not really the appropriate setting for Gordon Cowans, but he always contributes those delicate, inventive touches that can lighten the most gloomy, rainy day. His perceptive free-kick from deep inside his own half allowed Newell to take possession in space on the left and almost lazily canter forward before dipping a shot on to the crossbar.

The sting of the early minutes diminished only slightly. The quality fell considerably. Even Giggs, trying to volley Irwin's long pass into the penalty area, was unable to get the correct balance of power and accuracy from close range. Frustrations like that all added to a deteriorating game.

The largest crowd of the season at Ewood Park, 20,305, were clearly not going to see another hatful of goals on this afternoon. Last-ditch tackles and constant nudges on the man in possession destroyed continuity, and both defences held the game in their burly grasp. It was not an easy day for wingers. Clayton Blackmore, preferred to Andrei Kanchelskis, had his moments but was well marshalled by Ripley, and Giggs was not in his most roaming mood. Before Ripley moved across field to look after Blackmore, he had done a few effective things on the right wing. His questioning cross into the penalty area was hastily headed away by Bruce, but only to the feet of Cowans whose first-time shot sped wide.

United persevered well enough, but in that slightly unconvincing way that sometimes makes them appear to want to make progress without running the risk of defeat. That can be dangerous, and though Blackmore did bend one of the day's better shots narrowly over, it was Shearer who gave away the best of the few serious chances when he ran on to Jason Wilcox's pass but hit his shot into the body of the advancing Schmeichel.

Once Kanchelskis had been brought on, Blackmore was given a freer role and Blackburn had to dig deep into their defensive determination to block a series of United raids, including a shot from Blackmore that somehow penetrated a wall of players of both sides, but Mimms managed to see the ball as it came through and bundled it round the post. He did equally well to block Brian McClair's only real opportunity.

So Rovers failed to take revenge for that defeat on United's last visit in the League 26 years ago. That was the one that condemned them to the Second Division for so long. They have come a long way in a much shorter time recently. But as for United, they will have to improve on their finishing if they are not to endure another season of frustration.

Blackburn Rovers: B Mimms; D May, A Wright, T Sherwood, C Hendry, K Moran, S Ripley (R Wegerle, 81 min), G Cowans, A Shearer, M Newell, J Wilcox. Subs not used: N Marker, D Collier (gk). Manager: K Dalglish.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, D Ferguson (A Kanchelskis, 76 min), G Pallister, C Blackmore, P Ince, B McClair, M Hughes, R Giggs. Subs not used: N Webb, G Walsh (gk). Manager: A Ferguson.

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).