Rovers turn up the heat

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The Independent Online
NO trawlers, seafood nor Eric Cantona's French philosophy here; rather, steamers and meaty English fare as the Premiership leaders, Blackburn Rovers, put the onus firmly back on Manchester United to win their match against Leeds today with a hard-fought victory over Everton.

Two goals in an extraordinary start to the match, one after 16 seconds - the fastest in the Premiership's short history - the other after seven minutes, from the usual sources of Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer, gave them a cushion which, in the end, they needed. Graham Stuart pulled a goal back, but Everton could not quite prise the point that their spirit and second-half efforts deserved.

In that second period, Blackburn could not fashion a chance of note from a performance of ruggedness and resilience but little quality and even less charm. The match ended with the gloomy sight of Shearer easing pressure on his beleaguered defence by belting the ball from midfield into a corner with not a team-mate within 40 yards of it.

"A fortunate three points," the Blackburn manager, Kenny Dalglish, admitted. "It wasn't a purist's game and we certainly didn't perform the way we can. But the players have shown by their actions that they don't want to lose games." It says much about Blackburn.

Everton's pluck was all the more commendable as they were missing six regulars through suspension and injury, including their leading scorers, Duncan Ferguson and Paul Rideout, which gave a first start since November to Daniel Amokachi. Often they ill-served the Nigerian, hitting the ball high as if he were Ferguson, to leave you wondering if they might, Prince- like, rename the Goodison Park side "the artists formerly known as Everton".

But on came an 18-year-old substitute, Tony Grant, to restore some faith by showing tidiness in all his work to an appreciative crowd. Everton then assembled approximations of their former passing fancy.

They had given themselves too much to do, however, after a disorganised start which was hardly helped by two dubious refereeing decisions. In the game's very first move, Henning Berg played a long ball forward, which Shearer guided into the path of Sutton as he broke into the Everton penalty area.

Sutton appeared to handle the ball in controlling it, but the referee, Dermot Gallagher, allowed the striker to go on and turn the ball home for his 21st goal of the season. "They were a handful and an armful," said the Everton manager, Joe Royle, of Blackburn's front pair afterwards.

Within seven more minutes Blackburn had doubled their lead. Graeme Le Saux's low free-kick from the right was only partially cleared and the predatory Shearer on the edge of the box drove home his 34th goal of the season low into Neville Southall's right corner. It had been a questionable free-kick, awarded for an apparent foul by Earl Barrett on Shearer.

To his credit, Dalglish - not averse to bemoaning decisions against his side - admitted that things had gone Blackburn's way. "We had a little bit of good fortune in and around the goal, which helped us," he said.

And not just at the attacking end. After Stuart had chipped a neat goal out of the blue from 20 yards, taking a knockdown from Joe Parkinson, who had clambered over Tim Sherwood, Everton played all the best tunes. Some 20 seconds after that goal, Flowers touched Barlow's low drive on to his left post and, soon after, Dave Watson glanced a header just wide.

It was hard not to recall the last day of last season and Wimbledon's visit. Surely Horne would volley home from 25 yards and Stuart slip in a winner? Flowers, though, proved more of a barrier behind a resolute defence than Hans Segers had.

Flowers withstood the bombardment of wicked balls from Andy Hinchcliffe, one of which caused mayhem in the six-yard area and saw the ever-admirable Colin Hendry clear off the line, a trick he repeated from Hinchcliffe's drive late in the game. An appeal by an increasingly desperate Everton for a penalty when Stuart and Ian Pearce tangled went unheeded.

"A valiant effort but we needed a break or a decision and got neither," Royle said. Blackburn, on the other hand, got both.