Football: Walters finds the winning touch

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Liverpool . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Blackburn Rovers. . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

THE atmosphere, like both managers, was from Anfield's best traditions, and likewise last night's finish, with Liverpool rediscovering their old penchant for stunning late winners at the end of a match to savour.

Mark Walters, who spends most of his time in John Barnes' substantial shadow, stepped out of the shade to settle one of the best games of the season with two goals of outstanding quality.

It was billed as Kenny Dalglish's sentimental return, and the biggest club crowd of the season (43,688) assembled to witness it, but on Merseyside it would seem to be a case of the King is dead, long live the King. The Kop gave their old idol a generous reception, but Graeme Souness was the name they were chanting throughout.

If Dalglish, who gave them the Double and much more besides, was upset you would not have known it. The manager who quit this, his spiritual home in February last year, citing unbearable pressure, was asked if he returned a changed man. The answer, as ever, gave few clues as to his real feelings. 'Yes, I've changed,' he said. 'I didn't wear this suit the last time I was here.'

His team did him more credit than that flip response, wresting the initiative away from Liverpool for long periods and threatening to gain a draw, which would not have flattered them unduly, when Alan Shearer drove home his 20th, and most emphatic goal of what is already, in League terms, his most prolific season.

An afternoon of high drama began with Dalglish, besieged by a phalanx of photographers, acknowledging touching applause with a quick, self-conscious wave before disappearing into the dugout.

No sooner was he seated than his old team had him on his feet again, a picture of concern as Barnes set about dismantling the defence which Liverpool had identified as Blackburn's Achilles' heel.

Souness deployed a four-man front line with directions to run at their marker at pace. Barnes, in particular, does not need asking twice, and a sinuous run and cross from the byline would have brought the first goal after 27 minutes but for a feeble headed finish by Ronny Rosenthal.

Jamie Redknapp and Mike Marsh, shooting from distance, made a better fist of troubling Bobby Mimms before Barnes was at it again, skipping past David May before demanding a stretching, overhead save with a high cross that became a testing shot.

Half-time was spent contemplating what Liverpool might achieve once Whelan, Thomas and Molby - a midfield which would be the envy of most clubs - are fit to reinforce a squad which already has Walters and Paul Stewart in reserve, on the bench. Such thoughts were soon banished when Blackburn came out and dominated the first 20 minutes of the second half, with Shearer and Mike Newell pulling wide and interchanging constantly to bemuse everyone bar the excellent Steve Nicol.

Shearer, Gordon Cowans and Jason Wilcox all went close when Rovers were rampant, but no one closer than Newell, who shivered the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area.

Liverpool hung in there like the Liverpool of old, and were able to turn the tide when Walters replaced Rosenthal, giving Blackburn another tricky runner to contend with.

Ian Rush, throwing himself at a cross from Barnes, would have opened the scoring midway through the second half but for a flying save from Mimms, and Steve McManaman should have done so after 73 minutes instead of shooting over from 12 yards.

No matter. Four minutes later Walters treated the young winger - not to mention the rest of us - to a master class in finishing when he accepted Redknapp's pass and drove in what he described as his best goal for Liverpool from the left extremity of the penalty area, into the far corner.

Back came Blackburn in a match which had more cut and thrust than a whole series of Zorro, and within two minutes Shearer swivelled on Colin Hendry's knock-down and volleyed in a fulminating equaliser which had Molby, who had squeezed into the press box, exclaiming: 'Jesus Christ, what was that?'

Answering his own question, he said it was a goal worth anyone's admission money. It seemed to be worth a point, too, until with six minutes left Walters turned in McManaman's cross-cum-shot to provoke high fives all round from Souness and his staff, and gleeful choruses of 'Kenny, Kenny, what's the score?' from some 40,000 throats.

Liverpool are on the move, and up to ninth. They may yet have a big say in the most open championship race for years.

Liverpool: Hooper; Marsh, Wright, Nicol, Piechnik, Rosenthal (Walters, 56), McManaman, Redknapp, Rush, Barnes, Jones. Substitutes not used: Stewart, Grobbelaar (gk).

Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Wright, Atkins, Hendry, Moran, Sherwood, Cowans (Ripley, 78), Shearer, Newell, Wilcox (Wegerle, 78). Substitute not used: Collier (gk).

Referee: P Don (Middlesex).

Other reports, results, page 26

(Photograph omitted)