Football: United pack hard hats for Ewood showdown: Bullish Blackburn Rovers face a do-or-die day at home as the Premiership's swaggering champions and leaders come to town

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The Independent Online
ONE rapidly changing quarter of Ewood Park is designated a hard- hat zone; this area of potential danger, admirable industry and no little creativity will encompass the pitch today when Blackburn Rovers meet Manchester United for what is billed as the play-off for the Premiership. The foundations of each side's championship designs will be unveiled as built on rock or sand.

United, the champions, lead Rovers by six points and, if they avoid defeat at Ewood (as they have done for the last 32 years), should prove uncatchable on the seven- match run-in. Hence the tension.

Kenny Dalglish, Blackburn's astute manager, has played the canny man throughout his attractive team's whittling away of a United lead which stood at 16 points in January. After each step closer to those red coat-tails, Dalglish stressed that Blackburn were concentrating on their own displays and ignoring United's endeavours. The 'taking each game as it comes' approach expires today - defeat would leave Rovers too far off the pace.

Particularly after this week's other events. United packed up their treble ambitions for another year at Wembley on Sunday when a tactically and temperamentally inspired Aston Villa showed the way to sabotage Alex Ferguson's normally smooth winning machine. Unyielding defence, mature midfielders tackling back and breaking forward incessantly, and a fast attack proved too potent for United. But such vulnerability soon faded when, 24 hours after Rovers had been routed at Wimbledon, United narrowly beat Liverpool.

'We have got a six-point cushion and a 14-goal difference which could prove vital,' Ferguson said. 'Our attitude at Ewood Park will be to go all out to win the match. There will be a lot of tension. The trouble has now gone and to some extent the strain is off.'

One concern taxing Ferguson is a replacement for the suspended Eric Cantona, who played his last game in midweek before heading home to France for 10 days, so denying Ferguson the services of his most consistently creative and instinctive individual. Blackburn, unbeaten at home in the Premiership for six months, will be relieved.

The obvious options involve Brian McClair, Lee Sharpe and Bryan Robson. McClair, a loyal contributor who has never failed Ferguson, could partner Mark Hughes or the United manager may decide on an all-Welsh attack of Hughes and Ryan Giggs with the revitalised Sharpe appearing on the wing. Otherwise Robson, who came on for a distracted Cantona against Liverpool, could feature in a quick-breaking 4-5-1 formation. Ferguson commended Robson's 'calming influence', although Steve McManaman, Anfield's young winger, might disagree after being hounded by the former England captain.

Whether the battling Robson plays or not, the atmosphere at an all-ticket Ewood come 5pm will be intense. The stakes are, appropriately given the kick-off time manipulators, Sky-high. United, supported by countless people, are chasing a second successive title to ensure a lucrative return to Continental competition; Blackburn, supported by countless pounds, last won the title before the whole country went into Europe, in 1914.

Home hopes will centre around Tim Sherwood and David Batty wresting supremacy from Roy Keane and Paul Ince in a midfield confrontation that promises bruises. Whoever secures this high ground can unleash their wingers with impunity. 'We know that if we can play at our best there will be no problem winning,' Kevin Moran, Rovers' veteran centre-half who spent 11 seasons at Old Trafford, said.

Certainly no quarter will be requested or given. An abrasion-filled score draw looks the likely outcome.

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