Rovers' slackness exploited by Fowler

Leeds United 3 Blackburn Rovers 1
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The Independent Online

One of these teams is guaranteed European football next season, and it is the shambles that roused their manager to cold fury with a display of defensive incompetence exploited ruthlessly by Leeds' Robbie Fowler.

Assuming the FA Cup winners are drawn from the top five, Leeds are still on course to join Blackburn in the Uefa Cup, although there were glimpses yesterday of the searing form which this time last year transformed David O'Leary's side from mid-table embarrassment to the very brink of a return to the Champions' League.

In the words of Souness, Blackburn may have produced their worst performance since he began his salvage operation at Ewood Park, but the finishing from Fowler and Harry Kewell was sometimes sublime.

Nevertheless, having scored twice through two wonderful examples of the striker's art from Fowler, it seemed perhaps typical of Leeds' season that they were not entirely safe until Kewell, seizing on a fabulous crossfield ball from Robbie Keane on the 18-yard line, drove a low, fierce shot past Brad Friedel.

Those who feel Blackburn are too good to go down are not referring to their back four. Souness had long criticised his defenders for being unable to sense danger, even when that danger has the word "Fowler" on his back. The relationship between Tugay Kerimoglu and Hakan Unsal may be based on the Turkish language, but, in footballing terms, they appeared complete strangers.

Tugay's attempt to head the ball back to the former Galatasaray left-back merely found Fowler's boots, which sent the striker muscling past Hakan and driving his shot under Friedel's body without the slightest fuss.

A minute later, Fabio Capello's remarks that Liverpool would miss Fowler's ingenuity in their Champions' League decider against Roma tomorrow took on greater flesh as he beat Henning Berg to slide home a cross from Alan Smith delivered from the left wing ­ although he had been stationed on the right. If that were not enough, Mark Viduka promptly steered a header wide of an undefended goal which should have wrapped up the match after an opening 10 minutes that left Souness aghast.

The Blackburn manager was terseness itself. He answered only one question in the post-match press conference, but did not mask his opinions or his anger. "Leeds started at two o'clock, we started at quarter past. That is as weak a performance I have seen since I have been at this club," he said.

"It does not matter what league you are in, the first thing you have to be is solid for the first 20 minutes and match the opposition challenge for challenge. You need effort and aggression. We showed neither of those things. I am deeply disappointed given the position we are in."

Although successive victories against Aston Villa and Ipswich seemed vast strides towards safety, the postponement of next Saturday's game with Newcastle has meant Blackburn could be back in the relegation zone the next time they take the field.

In the dressing-room at half-time, O'Leary counselled his team to keep Blackburn at bay after the restart, words that a mix-up between Danny Mills and Jonathan Woodgate immediately rendered useless. Matt Jansen was allowed to sprint clear and, to his credit, finished as coolly as Fowler had done.

If Blackburn expected this to be a springboard for recovery, they were to be disappointed as Leeds, deprived of Smith's services with a knee injury, seized back the initiative with ease while two pigeons were feeding untroubled on the right flank, where Keith Gillespie should have been making his runs.

This week Rovers are supposed to take themselves off for a week's recuperation in Dubai, although a lesson in basic defending on Morecambe Sands might be more appropriate.

Goals: Fowler (5) 1-0; Fowler (7) 2-0. Jansen (50) 2-1; Kewell (71) 3-1.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn 6; Mills 6, Ferdinand 6, Woodgate 5, Harte 6; Smith 6 (Keane 64), Dacourt 5 (Bakke 5, 72), Batty 6, Kewell 7 (Wilcox, 82); Viduka 6, Fowler 8. Substitutes not used: Kelly, Robinson (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel 5; Neill 4, Berg 4, Johansson 4, Hakan 4; Dunn 5 (Gillespie 4, 34; Hignett, 84), Flitcroft 5, Tugay 4 (Hughes 6, h-t), Duff 6; Yordi 5, Jansen 7. Substitutes not used: Taylor, Miller (gk).

Referee: G Poll (Tring) 8.

Bookings: Leeds: Batty, Mills. Blackburn: Hughes.

Man of the match: Fowler.

Attendance: 39,857.

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