Football: United close on the title as Villa are ambushed: Blackburn's hopes fuelled by Newell

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The Independent Online
Blackburn Rovers. . .3

Aston Villa. . . . . 0

ON PAPER, Aston Villa can still win the Premier League championship. On the park, even Ron Atkinson now admits they are 'chasing shadows' after the convergence of events in north-east Lancashire and south-east London last night.

At Ewood Park, Mike Newell inflicted what looks likely to be the decisive damage to Villa's cause, taking his tally for the season to 19 with two top-class goals during a devastating first-half display of high-speed attacking by Blackburn in which Kevin Gallacher also scored. The news filtering through from Selhurst merely compounded Villa's despair.

Although they were often overrun during the opening period, Villa were left to reflect on two wasted opportunities. Even before Blackburn opened the scoring in the ninth minute - after only 70 seconds, in fact - Dalian Atkinson hit the woodwork from almost point-blank range.

Ironically, Villa must now rely on Blackburn to provide a further twist to the title saga by winning at Manchester United on 3 May. Kenny Dalglish's side will at least travel in positive frame of mind, having won six of their last seven fixtures to close on third place and possible entry in next season's Uefa Cup.

Aterwards Ron Atkinson recognised that the pendulum has swung towards Old Trafford, perhaps for the final time. 'Obviously, we've made it very difficult for ourselves,' the Villa manager said. 'We're now chasing shadows.

'It was daft really. We missed a golden chance and they scored. We missed another and they did it again. After that, I couldn't believe I was watching my team.

'All we can do now is attempt to beat Oldham in our last home game and hope that United lose to Rovers the following day. But whatever happens, I don't want to take anything away from the excellent season we've enjoyed. We intend to finish it on a high note.'

Dalglish and his former Villa player, Gordon Cowans, made all the right noises about going to United to win. 'It's not finished for Villa yet,' the Blackburn manager maintained. 'The title is won and lost over 42 games, not 40.' Generous sentiments, but deep down Villa will take some convincing.

They were still ruing Dalian Atkinson's profligacy when Blackburn scored from their first opening. Stuart Ripley's deep cross was headed back inside by Jason Wilcox to Newell, and the former Everton striker's left-foot shot on the turn beat Mark Bosnich's dive from 10 yards.

Seconds after Atkinson's second miss, a harder chance which he skied over, Blackburn struck again in the 15th minute. Bosnich spilled Newell's drive, and Gallacher pounced to side-foot his fourth goal in five matches since signing from Coventry - just as United were kicking off.

A flare-up between Newell and the Villa captain, Kevin Richardson, suggested that frustration was getting the better of the visitors. Shaun Teale, in his first game after suspension, could well have been sent off for an ugly foul on Gallacher, but Villa were less fortunate in the 41st minute, when Blackburn made it 3-0 with one of the goals of the season.

Racing on to Wilcox's majestic cross-field pass from the half-way line, Newell took one touch to control the ball before volleying fiercely beyond Bosnich from 20 yards.

That, effectively, was that, although Villa received the benefit of the doubt from Mr Worrall when Ripley fell under Earl Barrett's challenge in the second half. Dean Saunders, heading just over, and Ray Houghton, with a drive that dipped too late, came close late on, but in truth a goal would have been scant consolation.

Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Le Saux, Sherwood, Hendry, Moran, Ripley, Cowans, Gallacher, Newell, Wilcox. Substitutes not used: Marker, Atkins, Talia (gk).

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Small (Yorke, 61), Saunders, Atkinson, Daley. Substitutes not used: Cox, Spink (gk).

Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).