Shearer 46, 76
Manchester United. . . .0
IN A MATCH as raw as the wind that whipped in through the vast open space that will one day be Ewood Park's new main stand, Blackburn Rovers kept the Premiership battle alive yesterday. Two classic
centre-forward's goals by Alan Shearer, a majestic header and a shot of astonishing power, sent an out-of-sorts Manchester United to their third league defeat of the season, their lead now cut to three points with seven matches to play.
In a bitter wind, this was a match less suited to the pale loiterer than to those who put themselves about a bit. Sure enough, Paul Ince and David Batty were soon involved in a private battle, the Manchester United terrier felling his Blackburn counterpart. The tension inherent in a top-of-the-table struggle came to the surface when Steve Bruce remonstrated bitterly as Shearer fell to dramatic effect under the United captain's challenge. Roy Keane, too, kept the temperature high, taking instant revenge on Tim Sherwood for the Blackburn midfielder's harsh tackle on Ince.
United were certainly keeping their pre-match promise to attack. With Lee Sharpe on the left wing, Andrei Kanchelskis on the right and Ryan Giggs replacing the holidaying Cantona as Mark Hughes's partner in the centre of the attack, they were relying heavily on Keane's inventive ability in midfield.
Bruce, looking composed and confident at the heart of the visitors' defence, rescued his side from difficult positions twice within a minute. First he beat Shearer to Mike Newell's excellent through-ball. Then, after Batty had robbed Giggs and fed Shearer on the right, Bruce was on the spot to meet another dangerous cross.
For most of the first half, a stranger would have been hard put to identify the home side. While United attacked in mass, Rovers threatened on the break, the mobility of Shearer and the patient accuracy of Newell offering encouragement to their midfield suppliers.
The paranoia that has recently afflicted United on the run-in to the championship was never far below the surface. When Hughes failed to connect with Giggs's long diagonal cross, the Welsh striker first flicked a foot at his marker, Graeme le Saux, and then followed up with further menacing gestures. Roger Milford had spotted the cause as well as the effect, and booked both men. Rovers raced into the attack from the restart, Peter Schmeichel having words with Newell within seconds as the two tussled over a loose ball on the goal-line. From the resulting throw-in on the United left, Sherwood measured a long diagonal cross which found Shearer clear of the defensive line just outside the six-yard box. The centre-forward aimed his powerful header across Schmeichel's dive and just inside the right-hand post to put Blackburn into the lead.
United's response was surprisingly incoherent. Five minutes of collecting their wits resulted in nothing more than Keane's 25-yard drive wide of Tim Flowers's right-hand post. But Blackburn should have gone further ahead when Sherwood's marvellous pass inside Paul Parker set Jason Wilcox free just inside the United half. The young left-winger cut inside the lunging Gary Pallister on the edge of the area, only to send a right-foot shot weakly wide.
If Eric Cantona was watching the satellite transmission at his family home outside Marseilles, he may have felt - along with the rest of us - that United were missing not merely his gift for the unpredictable but also his ability to drop back, pick up the ball in space and impose a pattern on his colleagues. Nevertheless, when Sharpe's long cross dropped over the head of the waiting Giggs, Kanchelskis ran in to smash a meaty close-range volley which Flowers did well to palm away. A mis-hit would probably have done the job.
United were raising the pace, and a Giggs dummy in the penalty area allowed Ince to hit the outside of Flowers's right- hand upright. But after a careful build-up orchestrated by Newell down the left wing, Pallister had to be at his most alert to deflect Wilcox's cross away from Shearer's path.
Still the individual rivalries simmered. Hendry and Newell were booked, while Shearer and Pallister exchanged gesture and shove. Two minutes later, Shearer was shouldering past the United centre-half as he chased Stuart Ripley's long through-pass, meeting the ball with a cannonball that again left Schmeichel without a prayer.
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