Football: Rovers' misfortune is Ready made: United seven points away from retaining their title after Blackburn's challenge shows signs of fizzling out

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Blackburn Rovers. . . . .1

Queen's Park Rangers. . .1

SO IT may not go right to the wire, after all. Manchester United need just seven points from their last four games to retain the championship, and could have the title wrapped up in the next nine days after Blackburn's second stumble in successive weeks.

Persistent pursuers for so long, the stayers of the Premiership are in danger of tying up in the final furlong after raking only one point from comparatively undemanding fixtures against Southampton and Queen's Park Rangers.

Karl Ready's late equaliser leaves them in urgent need of a favour from Leeds United when the leaders travel to Elland Road on Wednesday.

Ready, a 21-year-old centre-half capped by Wales at Under-21 level, was at the centre of most things, and Kenny Dalglish and his team left their Ewood Park fastness cursing the young man's serendipity.

Apart from an 83rd-minute goal which was the product of a fortuitous rebound, he was lucky to get away with a penalty-area foul on Alan Shearer which the referee saw as obstruction and chose to punish with an indirect free-kick. Add a goal-line clearance from Colin Hendry in the last minute, and it was a day to remember for the fledgling from Neath. Ever Ready, indeed.

Until his late intervention, all the luck seemed to be going Blackburn's way. Alex Ferguson chose not to watch the match, which was probably just as well. The United manager would have shared Gerry Francis's apoplexy when Shearer gave Rovers the lead in contentious circumstances, just before half-time.

Roger Gifford, the Welsh referee, held his hand aloft in the time-honoured signal for an indirect free- kick when Ready fouled Paul Warhurst 25 yards out, and QPR were nonplussed when Shearer curled a shot over the defensive wall and just inside Tony Roberts's left-hand post.

Roberts got his fingertips to the ball, which would have legitimised the strike had the kick been indirect, but the debate as to whether it should be deemed his own-goal was stilled when the referee said he had raised his hand to indicate that an offence had taken place, and had lowered it on deciding that the free-kick should be a direct one.

Debatable or not, the goal was no more than Blackburn deserved. Of the two sides, QPR seemed to suffer most when successive knee injuries saw Mike Newell and Les Ferdinand depart after 13 and 17 minutes respectively. Newell's was a recurrence of an old problem, Ferdinand's sufficiently worrying for the England striker to be taken to hospital for an X-ray which revealed nothing more serious than heavy bruising.

Shearer miscued a volley from near the penalty spot and should have had the penalty he claimed when Ready flattened him with a body-check a yard inside the area. The offence was undoubtedly more serious than the one which produced Shearer's goal, but the referee made a pig's ear of his work again.

His mistake threatens to cost Blackburn dear. Just four minutes later Ray Wilkins squared a short free-kick to David Bardsley, whose shot cannoned off the defensive wall obligingly for Ready to drive crisply past Tim Flowers, right to left.

Hendry would have won it at the death but for Ready's goal-line intervention which left Rovers to rue the penalty that got away.

United now need just two wins and a draw from their last four fixtures, away to Leeds and Ipswich and at home to Southampton and Coventry City.

Had Blackburn blown it? 'How can you say that?' Dalglish bridled. 'Nothing is decided. We said all along that Manchester United had the advantage, but we're still in there fighting. It's not over yet.'

Maybe not, but the challengers have lost their way since beating the champions three weeks ago, and it may be too late to find it again.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, May, Hendry, Le Saux; Ripley, Batty, Sherwood, Wilcox; Shearer, Newell (Warhurst, 13). Substitutes not used: Wright, Mimms (gk).

Queen's Park Rangers (4-4-2): Roberts; Bardsley, Ready, Yates, Wilson; Impey, Holloway, Wilkins, Sinclair; White, Ferdinand (Barker, 22). Substitutes not used: McDonald, Stejskal (gk).

Referee: R Gifford (Llanbradach).

----------------------------------------------------------------- BATTLE FOR THE PREMIERSHIP ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Man Utd. . . . 38 24 10 4 74 37 82 Blackburn. . . 39 24 8 7 60 33 80 REMAINING FIXTURES: Manchester United: 27 Apr Leeds (A); 1 May Ipswich (A); 4 May Southampton (H); 8 May Coventry (H). Blackburn Rovers: 27 Apr West Ham (A); 2 May Coventry (A); 8 May Ipswich (H). -----------------------------------------------------------------