Shearer set to steady Blackburn

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The Independent Online
Blackburn have not exactly given up on the European Cup, yet it ranks a poor second behind making a respectable fist of defending the Premiership title.

Ray Harford revealed as much yesterday, when he admitted offering to let Alan Shearer sit out tonight's Champions' League fixture against Legia Warsaw.

Shearer, whose 12 goals in 13 appearances have sustained Blackburn during their abysmal start, declined the invitation. But in explaining the thinking behind the gesture - namely the attritional effects of playing twice a week - Harford laid bare the champions' priorities this season.

"I suggested to Alan on Saturday that if he didn't want to play in Poland he could have a rest," Harford said. "We've got Chris Sutton, Mike Newell and Paul Warhurst who could go up front, but he told me he wants to play every game.

"The Premier League is the most important thing to us. We've lost the first two in Europe. We've also lost Mark Atkins and Lee Makel [both transferred], and we can't get any players in who are eligible."

Sub-standard standard bearers so far, Blackburn face Legia with spirits buoyed by a 2-1 win over Southampton. However, Harford's reluctance to enter the transfer market until it was clear the problems were potentially terminal means that neither Lars Bohinen, who made a scoring debut at the weekend, nor his other new midfielder, Billy McKinlay, is available.

Warhurst, who last started a match seven months ago, is likely to be asked to duplicate Bohinen's breaks from midfield. Alternatively, Newell could operate behind the attacking duo, though Harford's deliberations have been confused by doubts over Stuart Ripley's participation.

The former Middlesbrough winger's wife was rushed to hospital on Monday night with an ectopic pregnancy. If her condition has improved Ripley may fly out today, but without him Blackburn would have no natural width and a team who play to a rigid pattern may be forced to improvise.

Ideally, Harford would like to persist with Sutton alongside Shearer: the so-called SAS. Michael Portillo reckons the mere letters frighten the enemy. Football-wise, that has not been true since Christmas, and it is hard to envisage Blackburn prospering unless the reports of a renewed partnership are confirmed.

Having embarrassed the flag, rather than wrapping themselves in it like Mr Portillo, Blackburn need at least a draw in the Wojska Polskiego stadium to maintain hopes of a quarter-final place. "Seven points might just be enough if the other results go right," Harford said. "We've been OK at home, so the games against Legia and Rosenborg give us hope."

Blackburn's travails have come on their travels, with only Swindon failing to beat them. Legia, domestic double winners two years running and in second place after a 7-2 away victory on Saturday, underlined their capacity to extend the sequence by taking both legs of the preliminary round against IFK Gothenburg, conquerors of Manchester United a year ago.

Harford has seen them only on video, in games when their prolific striker, Jerzy Podbrozny, was absent because of illness. Ominously for Blackburn, he scored twice in his comeback at Siarka Tarnobrzeg.

During the war, tonight's venue was commandeered by the Germans as a fortified artillery post. Trenches were dug in the pitch and SS men occupied the stand. Blackburn's campaign to dominate Europe has hardly been characterised by military precision. The retreat from Warsaw might be grim indeed should their tactical and technical shortcomings be exposed once more.

Legia Warsaw (probable, 3-1-4-2): Szczesny; Jozwiak, Ratayczyk, Mandziejewicz; Zielinski; Lewandowski, Pisz, Bednarz, Wieszczycki; Podbrozny, Kucharski.

Blackburn Rovers (probable, 4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Pearce, Hendry, Kenna; Ripley or Holmes, Sherwood, Batty, Warhurst; Sutton, Shearer.