Dazzling Duff lifts Rovers' hopes of survival

Middlesbrough 1 Blackburn Rovers 3
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The Independent Football

Damien Duff's dance of devastating skill through Middlesbrough's defence lifted Blackburn's play out of its nervous mess and, in creating the goal that guided Rovers to a comfortable victory, also lifted the club up towards safety.

The three points hoisted Blackburn over Sunderland into fifth from bottom and, after a thoroughly undistinguished opening half-hour, they owed much to Duff's 33rd-minute run. He glided away from a snapping Paul Ince and skirted his way around Luke Wilkshire to enter the penalty area. There, he undid Robbie Stockdale with an audacious, balletic drag-back before playing a perfect low ball across Mark Schwarzer to Yordi on the back post. From a yard the Spanish striker, playing because Matt Jansen was still laid low with a stomach bug, couldn't miss his second goal of the season.

"Damien's on fire at the moment," said his manager, Graeme Souness. "He worked his magic several times today. In the second half of the season he has proved he can deal with this league and can be a star in this league. Players like him are few and far between, we are fortunate to have him." Souness, though, refused to accept that his 39 points amounted to safety. "I've been in this game long enough to know it can bite you where you don't want it to. We can do it on Tuesday against Newcastle and thank goodness Alan Shearer's got his 200th goal, because he was scripted to do it against us."

Until Duff's dazzling dance, Middlesbrough had been comfy in their quest for their highest Premiership finish. They confidently over-elaborated, Ince and Benito Carbone playing piggy-in- the-middle with Duff on the edge of their own area, and it wasn't until the 41st minute that Brad Friedel had something serious to do as he tipped over Gareth Southgate's header.

At half-time, Boro's manager, Steve McClaren, tried to mend his side's ways, withdrawing Wilkshire and Allan Johnston for Carlos Marinelli and Michael Debève. The changes gave Middlesbrough impetus, Lucas Neill thwarting Carbone with a fine tackle in front of Friedel and the goalkeeper also denying the Italian with a splendid save from a 25-yard free-kick.

The kick had been conceded by Garry Flitcroft – a booking for felling Ince – six minutes after his arrival to bolster Blackburn's midfield.

But Carbone aside, Boro had little of which to boast, and on the hour Marinelli miscued his cross so badly it got stuck on the stadium roof.

"The mood seems to be that we were unlucky last week in the FA Cup semi-final and we didn't focus on this game or on the efforts that have got us into ninth place and into that semi-final," said McClaren. "We didn't play well and were punished."

The game, though, was not over until the 74th minute, when Duff swung one of his magical corners on to Andy Cole's stooping head for the second. And the victory didn't become comfortable until eight minutes from time when David Dunn, subdued for much of the game, blasted the ball painfully at Franck Queudrue in the area. As he collected the rebound, the French defender removed his legs but Dunn recovered quickly to send the penalty, via Schwarzer's fingertips, home.

A miserable match for Queudrue, whose distribution had been woeful, was capped when he received a straight red card for scything down Dunn in the 89th minute.

Boro's sole consolation came from substitute Szilard Nemeth with the last kick of the game, as Blackburn joined only Manchester United and Liverpool in beating them at home since September.