Newcastle storm eight points clear

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Newcastle United 1 Blackburn Rovers 0

Most managers would balk at making title predictions in May, never mind early November, but most managers aren't Kevin Keegan. Last night's victory over reigning champions Blackburn Rovers, their first in four attempts at St James' Park since the clubs' multi-millionaire benefactors established English football's new order, sent Newcastle eight points clear of Manchester United at the top of the Premiership.

Robert Lee's 13th-minute goal maintained the leader's 100 per cent home record and left Rovers a staggering 20 points off the pace after their sixth defeat in seven away games. Europe may be a problem, but their travel sickness seems to set in the moment they leave Lancashire.

Newcastle, of course, have been here before. Twelve months ago, the Magpies occupied a similarly lofty perch, only for long-term injuries to Scott Sellars and Philippe Albert to wreck their hopes of a first championship since 1927.

Both are now fit, but neither can command a place in Newcastle's starting line-up, and it is that new-found strength in depth which has given Keegan fresh confidence in his side's staying power. "This year we aren't the sort of side to squander a lead like that very easily," he insisted. "We've got a belief in ourselves which, for whatever reason, Blackburn haven't found again this season.

"We've been able to grind out a couple of wins this week without being at our best. I don't think our keeper had a save to make in the second half, and that's no mean feat against a side of such quality.

"I couldn't ask for more than to be eight points clear at the top at this stage. If we are still that far ahead in May we'll have something to celebrate."

Newcastle have developed an irritating habit - irritating, that is, only to their rivals - of pinching the points when well below par. Saturday's last-minute win over Liverpool was a prime example and this victory was also hard-earned, but no less rapturously received by fans who sense this really could be their year.

Rovers defended stubbornly, with Colin Hendry outstanding, and were prised open only once when Lee twisted away from two challengers to shoot low across Tim Flowers and in off the goalkeeper's right-hand post.

If the match had been billed as the champions against the pretenders to their throne, the sub-plot involving the Premiership's leading marksmen, Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand, was no less an attraction.

As it transpired, the pair did not manage a noteworthy attempt on goal between them, largely due to the diligence of their respective markers, Steve Howey and the inspired Hendry. With Switzerland due at Wembley next week, it was not the news the England coach, Terry Venables, wanted to hear.

Ferdinand's frustration brought him the first of the night's four bookings, David Ginola's lunge at David Batty being swiftly followed by yellow cards for Blackburn's Graeme Le Saux and Lars Bohinen.

The scoreline would also have had a balanced look about it had it not been for goal-line clearances by Howey and Darren Peacock, which deprived both Bohinen and Batty of an equaliser before the interval.

"It was a big improvement on our performance at Everton last Sunday, even though we lost," said Ray Harford, the Blackburn manager, who can already see Rovers' title disappearing from his grasp. And who might relieve them of it? "Newcastle have got a good chance," he conceded. "With a lead like that, I wouldn't bet against them."

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hislop; Barton, Howey, Peacock, Beresford; Gillespie, Watson, Lee, Ginola; Beardsley, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Albert, Elliott, Srnicek (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Kenna, Berg, Hendry, Le Saux; McKinlay (Sutton, 88), Bohinen, Sherwood (Warhurst, 78), Batty; Newell, Shearer. Substitute not used: Mimms (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Last night's results, page 31