Football: Sutton's striking signal for Hoddle

Crystal Palace 1 Blackburn Rovers 2
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The Independent Online
The season is too young to be offering predictions with any great degree of confidence, but here is one to consider: by the end of the campaign, Stuart Ripley will not be the principal Blackburn forward in contention for international honours with England.

While the flying Rovers winger has made a fine start to the season, there is surely no English forward in better form at the moment than his colleague, Chris Sutton. The former Norwich City player scored his sixth goal of the season at Selhurst Park on Saturday and looked the very model of the modern centre-forward.

It is hard to think of a weakness in Sutton's game. He has a powerful shot - as Palace discovered when he pounced on Marc Edworthy's error to score Rovers' first - and is strong in the air. His control is particularly good and he links superbly with fellow forwards, laying off passes and making runs into space.

Quite why Stan Collymore, who has had a quiet start to the season with Aston Villa and has yet to impress at international level, was chosen ahead of Sutton for England's World Cup qualifier against Moldova next week is something that only Glenn Hoddle can answer.

While no international manager makes his selections purely on current form, Sutton's recent performances can hardly have taken Hoddle by surprise, for there were plenty of signs last year that the 24-year-old striker was at last starting to realise his great potential.

It helps, of course, to be playing in a side brimming with confidence. Rovers have made a flying start under their new manager, Roy Hodgson, and 15 goals and 13 points from their first five matches have taken them to the top of the Premiership table.

For 50 minutes here Blackburn were hugely impressive, playing incisive football that regularly threatened to cut the Palace defence to shreds. Martin Dahlin, the Swedish international signed in the summer for pounds 2m from Roma, was given his first start alongside Sutton because of Jason Wilcox's injury - Kevin Gallacher filled Wilcox's position wide on the left to good effect - and the two strikers thrived on the excellent service provided by Lars Bohinen, in particular.

Ripley, ironically, was the least effective of the Rovers forwards and was generally kept in check by Dean Gordon. Steve Coppell, the Palace manager, said after the game: "We concentrated all week on trying to stop Stuart Ripley, which I think we did really well, but then Blackburn also have players like Sutton and Gallacher. There is an awful lot of fire- power in their team."

It was Gallacher who scored Blackburn's second after 31 minutes, racing on to the pass of the match from Bohinen, though the Scot was fortunate to have a second chance to score. His first shot bounced back into his path off Kevin Miller, the Palace goalkeeper, who had made an error of judgement in rushing off his line in an attempt to cut out the through ball.

Five minutes into the second half Palace pulled a goal back with a carbon copy of Gallacher's effort, Bruce Dyer running on to Andy Linighan's pass and heading past the onrushing Tim Flowers. Thereafter Palace strove manfully for an equaliser, but although they had plenty of possession the London side never showed the guile that had put Blackburn in such command in the first half.

Rovers, meanwhile, never got going again after an eight-minute delay while Colin Hendry received attention for a head injury suffered in a sickening collision with Flowers shortly after Palace's goal. The Blackburn defender was taken to hospital with concussion, but was released later in the evening.

"The injury and the break destabilised the team," Hodgson said. "The first half was very cool and calculated, but we conceded the goal too early in the second half. They put us to the test but I thought we came out of it very well."

Coppell saw Edworthy's mistake as the turning point but found reasons for optimism. "In the second half we had a real go," he said. "We showed how much it means to us to be in this division and how much we want to stay in it."

Passion, however, will not be enough to keep Palace in the Premiership and this match underlined the size of their task. In particular, two defensive mistakes which they might have got away with last year in the First Division were ruthlessly punished here with goals.

Attilio Lombardo, Palace's summer signing from Juventus, never got into the game and for the most part the tireless Dyer was their only threat. At least they can console themselves with the fact that they will not have to deal with opposition of Blackburn's quality every week.

Goals: Sutton (23) 0-1; Gallacher (31) 0-2; Dyer (50) 1-2.

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Miller; Muscat (Emblen, 75), Tuttle (Shipperley, 90), Edworthy, Linighan (Hreidarsson, 89), Gordon; Lombardo, Roberts, Rodger; Dyer, Warhurst. Substitutes not used: Freedman, Nash (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Valery, Henchoz, Hendry (Pearce, 62), Kenna; Ripley, Bohinen, Flitcroft, Gallacher; Sutton, Dahlin (Andersson, 89). Substitutes not used: Croft, Duff, Williams (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

Bookings: Crystal Palace: Roberts, Tuttle. Blackburn: Flitcroft.

Man of the match: Sutton.

Attendance: 20,849.