Rovers win test of nerve to go eight points clear

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Blackburn Rovers 2

Crystal Palace 1

Another evening of frayed nerves for Blackburn - as well as for the Manchester United legions frantically paging Teletext - ended with the Premiership leaders reopening an eight-point advantage at Ewood Park.

Jeff Kenna and Kevin Gallacher, each with his first goal for Blackburn this season, lifted the pall of tension in a dramatic spell at the start of the second half. Crystal Palace, however, knew that one point would carry them out of the relegation zone, and in the 20 minutes left following Ray Houghton's riposte they were the width of the woodwork away from taking it.

But Blackburn deservedly held out, securing a success which leaves them needing five points from their final three fixtures to be certain of their first championship since 1914. Their next match is not until a week on Sunday, away to West Ham, where another win would put Kenny Dalglish's side 11 points clear by the time United resume their run-in at Coventry on May Day.

In the aftermath of Monday's home defeat by Manchester City, Blackburn simply needed to add to their points total. All other considerations were secondary. In that context, and bearing in mind that they were without the hugely influential Colin Hendry and Tim Sherwood, this was arguably as vital a victory as any the club have achieved this century.

That Dalglish was able to replace the suspended duo with Gallacher and David Batty - starting their first games in 15 and 12 months respectively - was an awesome demonstration of Blackburn's resources. Both were outstanding, although Gallacher's comeback after a double fracture of the right leg was curtailed by John Humphrey's crude lunge. The Scot was taken to hospital for precautionary X-rays.

Chances were at a premium during the first half. After just six minutes, Ian Pearce felled Iain Dowie a matter of inches from the Blackburn box, only for Palace to waste the free-kick, while an Alan Shearer header which Houghton cleared from under the crossbar was the closest the hosts came to a breakthrough.

Already deprived of Nigel Martyn and John Salako, Palace had been forced to reorganise further when Eric Young limped off. The centre-back's aerial power was badly missed as Blackburn swept into a 47th-minute lead, Stuart Ripley's high cross breaking off a defender to Kenna. The former Southampton player, whose versatility has been important since last month's £1.5m transfer, showed another string to his bow with a crisp finish.

Three minutes later Blackburn scored again, with Ripley involved once more. The winger freed Shearer, whose low cross, cut back from the byline, found Gallacher stealing in front of static markers to tuck the ball home. Soon after his enforced exit, though, Houghton halved the deficit with a venomous cross-shot after Dowie had worked the ball in from the left.

Dowie almost equalised eight minutes from time with a drive which clipped Tim Flowers' right-hand post, but Alan Smith admitted a draw would have flattered his team. "They deserved to win," the Palace manager said, "and I think they'll go on and do it now."

No such claims from the undemonstrative Dalglish, of course, merely a reiteration of what had been transparent on the pitch: "The points were more important than the performance."

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Kenna, Pearce, Berg, Le Saux; Ripley, Batty, Atkins, Gallacher (Slater, 65); Shearer, Sutton. Substitutes not used: Newell, Mimms (gk).

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Wilmot; Patterson, Shaw, Young (Humphrey, 32; Cox, 70), Coleman; Southgate, Houghton, Newman, Gordon; Armstrong, Dowie. Substitute not used: Glass (gk).

Referee: B Hill (Market Harborough).

PREMIERSHIP TOP TWO

P W D L F A GD Pts

Blackburn 39 26 8 5 78 35 +43 86

Man Utd 38 23 9 6 70 24 +46 78

REMAINING FIXTURES

Blackburn: 30 April West Ham (A); 8 May Newcastle (H); 14 May Liverpool (A).

Man United: 1 May Coventry (A); 7 May Sheff Wed (H); 10 May Southampton (H); 14 May West Ham (A).

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