Blackburn Rovers today enjoyed a one-nil victory against fellow mid-table underachievers Middlesbrough in a game of numerous firsts.
Mark Hughes only made the one change, replacing the ill Francis Jeffers up-front with Shabani Nonda as Rovers went in search of their first away goal and first away win of the season. As expected, Gareth Southgate rung the changes with most of his rested stars returning to first team action in a four-five-one formation. Jonathon Woodgate led the Boro team out on his home debut to a rapturous reception.
It was Rovers who started the game brightly on a sunny afternoon, moving the ball around the park well and firing a number of balls into Middlesbrough`s penalty area. The hosts looked sluggish and devoid of any kind of succinct rhythm as the many changes from mid-week seemed to have an adverse affect.
Rovers enjoyed the majority of the early possession, forcing Mark Schwarzer into a couple of comfortable early saves.
However, just as the balance appeared to be altering Rovers took the lead from a sharp attack. David Bentley gathered the ball down the right-hand touchline and delivered a trademark long floating ball towards the six yard area in search of a blue and white jersey. Nonda stealthily crept into space leaving his marker stranded and leapt athletically above the Middlesbrough defence to arrow a header into the top corner of Schwarzer`s goal.
Rovers didn`t sit back on their laurels but it was a stout Boro side that roused themselves to retaliate.
They should have been level and, in fact, taken the lead but for the inept finishing of one of football`s forgotten men; Jason Euell.
The Jamaican international is a new face on Teesside following his transfer from Charlton where he had been wallowing in the reserves however; he did little here to demonstrate he still has Premiership quality.
First of all he tamely headed towards goal when unmarked before skewing the ball wide of Brad Friedel`s post with only the ‘keeper to beat following a sumptuous pass from Fabio Rochemback. These served to be Boro`s best openings as Rovers finished the half on a stronger note. Robbie Savage, and a minute earlier, Lucas Neill, both thumped long distance efforts at goal, the first of which from Neill forced Schwarzer into a smart save with his legs.
Graeme Poll blew for half-time with Rovers leading one-nil and enjoying the lion`s share of possession against a tepid Boro side exposed to the fury of the home fans.
Gareth Southgate sent his players out for the second half with two new faces and a new formation. Lee Cattermole replaced a weary and decrepit Gaika Mendieta, who is but a shadow of the multi-million pound superstar of previous years and James Morrison, who failed to strike a chord, was replaced by Mark Viduka.
Yet it was Mark Hughes` men, sensing more goals now they had broken their away-day duck, who looked a more likely source to contrive a goal.
Morten Gamst Pedersen, normally so lethal with his set-play deliveries was having another off-day and resorted to laying off short corners to the energetic Savage, but he failed to deliver a ball of any quality either.
As the game approached the hour mark and with Rovers continuing to control the game with much of the possession, Schwarzer had to be alert to divert a blistering Benni McCarthy drive from twenty-yards.
The game then seemed to dissolve into a scrappy affair, with neither side prepared to force the issue. Middlesbrough`s midfield continued to be over-run as Fabio Rochemback failed to keep up with Savage and Tugay who were happy to control things from the middle of the park.
It was Robbie Savage, always a favourite with away fans, who was once again the butt of their abuse and humour as he was forced to change, stripping down on the touchline after a bloody nose had brought a new style to the Rovers jersey.
Boro responded to this bear faced cheek from the away side with a flurry of corners delivered by the disappointing Rochemback. One such floater presented Yakubu with a headed opportunity on goal. However, his attempt was synonymous of Boro`s performance; wide of the mark and devoid of any potent threat.
Boro continued to conjure half-chances from a number of forced corners but failed to test Friedel who watched as his back four put in a solid display to dispel much criticism levelled at them following an appalling early season defensive record.
A lot of encouragement will be taken from Andre Ooijer`s performance in particular as it appears he is beginning to settle into Hughes` side.
Aaron Mokoena replaced Tugay after seventy-six minutes to provide further steel in front of Friedel`s goal as Rovers anticipated a late rally from Boro.
In fairness it never materialised with Mark Viduka going closest with a couple of efforts. Indeed, it was Rovers who came closest to scoring on the break after a rasping Brett Emerton drive was expertly tipped wide at full stretch by Schwarzer.
Rovers held on to secure their first away win of the season with their first away goal provided by Nonda`s first for the club as, for the first time, the winning pattern between the two sides was broken, meaning Hughes` troops now have their first back-to-back wins of the season.
Mark Hughes was the first to praise his side afterwards telling the official site:
“I thought we were excellent from start to finish. In the first half I felt we controlled the tempo of the game and some of our movement and the way we circulated the ball was as good as we`ve seen this year.
“In the second half when obviously you expect a response which they tried to muster I thought we withstood all the balls into the box.“
Hughes would later reserve special praise for the goal scorer:
“I was really pleased for Nonda. He is a good player and I think everybody saw that today. I`m delighted for him and to get the goal as well really tops off an excellent performance, a great towering header at the back post, fantastic.“
Had very little to do but continues to be assured in what he does.
Captained the side well again with an accomplished display. Got foward well to provide an additional outlet for Rovers.
Continues to look assured in his new position. Like his Australian compatriot he got forward well.
Seems to be building something of an understanding with Ooijer. Looks composed on the ball and read the game well.
One of his better displays in a Rovers shirt.
A subdued display. A wonderful ball in for Nonda’s goal but drifted out of the game at times. He needs to really start taking his chances and provide a more potent threat from the wing.
After two much improved displays he was once again quiet. His deliveries were very poor at times.
Worked hard again and was involved in a lot of Rovers’ positive play.
Commanded things well alongside Savage in the middle of the park. Kept the ball moving in traditional fashion.
Made a nuisance of himself and contniues to look like a potent threat in front of goal.
Long awaited debut after two impressive substitute performances didn’t disappoint. Works well with McCarthy and works hard for the team.
Did what he was required to do and broke up Boro’s play.
Had little chance to impress as Rovers were largley on the back foot.
A brief return to the side for the last couple of minutes.