Rovers aim to show true colours

Phil Shaw looks at the matches that matter this weekend
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The Independent Online
The end of the year, which marks the midway stage in the Premiership campaign for Blackburn Rovers, also finds Kenny Dalglish halfway to paradise. So near, as the song says, yet so far.

Blackburn last won the championship in 1914, a year so sepia-tinted that its most famous match, an impromptu kickabout between British and German soldiers, is now regarded as a quaint festive yarn rather than an historical event.

For the modern-day Rovers, a point clear with a game in hand but lacking Manchester United's experience of riding the pressure to take the title, repeating the feat may be like negotiating a minefield.

Selhurst Park, that epitome of the soulless suburban stadium where Dalglish's team meet Crystal Palace today, is not exactly a footballing no-man's land. But it has proved treacherous terrain before for Blackburn, whose hopes of taking United to the wirelast season virtually ended there with a 4-1 defeat by Wimbledon.

On paper, the prospect of a similar scoreline this afternoon looks remote. Palace have failed to score in their last seven League fixtures, while Blackburn's defensive record is bettered only by United. When Alan Smith's side do hit the net, however, they tend to to it in numbers that are normally the preserve of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, whose partnership has made Blackburn the Premiership's leading scorers.

Prior to their present drought - perhaps an inapposite word after the Christmas deluge which accounted for Blackburn's match with Leeds - Palace amassed seven goals in two games. In the middle of the run they put four past Aston Villa in the Coca-Cola Cup. An early goal, therefore, might trick the teams into a spree.

The likelihood of high scoring still appears greater at The Dell, where Southampton receive United in a contest which the capacity crowd, not to mention Match of the Day, will inevitably reduce to a contest between Matthew Le Tissier and Eric Cantona. United, for all their recent mediocre form at home, are better equipped than the Saints to flourish, should their key creative force be man-marked into relative anonymity.

Discouragingly for the posse pursuing the front-runners, four of the five champions in the 1990s have been in the top two going into the New Year. In this context, victory for third-placed Liverpool at Leeds is vital to their hopes of breaking the mould.

A third successive win, especially against such unyielding hosts, would confirm that Liverpool have adapted to using three central defenders and are ready to roll.

Equally, Leeds are under fire from their fans after two anaemic home draws and need three points to prevent their season hinging on FA Cup success. Noel Whelan and Robbie Fowler, once England Youth partners, should provide a telling compare-and-contrast exercise.

Another revealing statistic shows that 11 clubs - exactly half the division - have changed managers since this time a year ago in the desperate struggle to retain the financial benefits of Premier League status. Two of their number, Everton and Ipswich, meet at Goodison, where George Burley's new charges risk being cut hopelessly adrift if they lose.

Burley's fellow Scot, Mark McGhee, has affected a rapid transformation at Leicester. All he needs now is a win, although Sheffield Wednesday - whose nine goals in two holiday triumphs ended the outside chance of Trevor Francis increasing the tally of managerial changes - will offer buoyant opposition. Guy Whittingham, a scorer at Filbert Street with Aston Villa this month, returns with four goals and unlikely cult status among the Hillsborough hordes.

Bryan Robson, whose Middlesbrough side have opened up a seven-point gap in the First Division, pits managerial wits against a former Old Trafford ally, Lou Macari, for the first time at Stoke.

In the Second, Birmingham expect a third consecutive 20,000 gate for Blackpool's visit, while Walsall, one defeat in 13 since Chris Nicholl took over, and Mansfield, 12 goals in 24 hours over Christmas, deserve bumper gates for the Third Division tussleswith Doncaster and Barnet respectively.