Rovers are streets behind

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The Independent Online
Since the Granada Studios, with their Coronation Street set, are less than a mile from Old Trafford, it is easy to see both of Manchester's leading institutions in one day. Had any Blackburn fans done so on Saturday they would had discovered that the Rovers' revival, like the Rovers' Return, is not as real as its devotees would like. The champions may have risen from 15th in October to sixth this weekend but they are unlikely to climb much further.

Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Manchester United underlined their new status as also-rans. The match lacked the edge of recent years and, after Lee Sharpe had scored after 14 minutes, Old Trafford's attention focused on Newcastle's labours at Middlesbrough.

One-season wonders? No, Rovers have finished fourth, second and first in the last three years. But they are clearly not what they were. The fictional Rovers may have survived the loss of Bet Lynch but the footballing one is still coming to terms with Kenny Dalglish's move.

Blackburn could enter a plea of mitigation. Saturday was not the best time to judge them. They were missing six senior squad members, including two key ones in Lars Bohinen and Graeme Le Saux. They were also facing a Manchester United flush with form and unbeaten at home in the Premiership.

Still, Rovers could have gone down with a bit more panache. They went down fighting, but only in the physical sense. They were stubborn, dogged and niggly but never looked like scoring. Compared to United's fluid breaks and quick passing they were pedestrian and predictable.

It did not help that Alan Shearer was as anonymous as it is possible to be while being abused by the Premiership's biggest crowd of the season. Shearer has scored just three times in 13 matches against Manchester United, all at Ewood Park. Of his 30 goals this season he has scored five away from home. Taken with his 17-month blank for England those figures suggest a flat-track bully, the footballing Graeme Hick.

What they do not reveal, however, is the scant support he receives away from home. Rovers' movement was poor, compounding the absence of Bohinen's invention and sending Shearer to the flanks even more often than usual.

He had just two chances, and the better one was created by United, Gary Pallister leaving a back-pass short after 35 minutes and forcing Schmeichel to react quickly. The United goalkeeper had earlier watched as Shearer put a difficult header over. That was greeted by a chorus of "you'll never score for England". From then on Shearer, if anything, tried too hard, his frustration climaxing with a nasty, out-of-character kick at Peter Schmeichel. It brought a rare, but deserved booking.

Newell was also booked for a foul on Schmeichel. The two incidents, and several others, reflected the lingering bitterness between these two sides after successive title dogfights. Even in this aspect United, once Roy Keane calmed down, were in control.

Harford said the only plus for him was the return, after 11 months, of Jason Wilcox. He did give Rovers a better balance. While the long ball predominated on the right flank - where Kevin Gallacher regularly drifted inside - Rovers looked to build their attacks on the left with Wilcox linking well.

He also gave the side someone who was prepared to run with the ball. While Ryan Giggs, Keane, Sharpe and Denis Irwin frequently drove at Rovers' defence only Wilcox did so for the visitors and, not surprisingly, he faded.

"We were not positive going forward," admitted Ray Harford, the Rovers manager. "We did not believe we could get anything out of it."

"We were good, but not brilliant," said Alex Ferguson, his United counterpart. "We should have scored more, at times we lack a cutting edge."

The scalpel is supposed to be provided by Andy Cole. He missed three more chances - although the first, a shot against the post after a sharp one-two with Eric Cantona, was neatly put in by Sharpe following up.

While Cole continues to betray promise, his old club are building on theirs. The signing of Faustino Asprilla may be risky but it highlights Kevin Keegan's determination to make things happen - as does Saturday's early use of the Colombian.

He has given Newcastle a buzz they badly needed - while at the same time deflating a Manchester United side who were feeling jaunty when 'Boro led at half-time. "I thought we were going to have a good day," Ferguson said.

Instead the gap remains nine points with a dozen matches to play (13 for Newcastle). Ferguson may soon feel the need to spend some of United's growing riches.

For the meantime he settled for continuing the psychological battle - "we are very patient... we can wait... it is presumptous of Newcastle to think they have won it" - but Newcastle, being less in the shadow of Manchester than Blackburn, are less likely to be rattled. Their pressure comes from within, from their own fans' expectation. It appears they will cope with it.

For Blackburn, expectation is suspended. A European place is the height of their ambition - the masochists. Should they fail, Shearer may copy the Street's glamour figure, Raquel, and walk out of the Rovers. If that happened Harford, like Vera Duckworth, may feel haunted by a previous incumbent.

Goals: Sharpe (14) 1-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, May, Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Giggs, Sharpe; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: Parker, McClair, Scholes.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Hendry, Coleman (Marker, 83), Kenna; Gallagher, Sherwood, McKinlay, Wilcox (Gudmundsson, 72); Newell (Fenton, 66), Shearer.

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

Bookings: Manchester United: Keane. Blackburn Rovers: Newell, Shearer, Fenton.

Man of the match: May. Attendance: 42,681.