It was nervy and far from accomplished but Blackburn Rovers have pieced together a win to end 2007 on a high note and re-ignite the season.
In a scrappy game finely contested by both teams Rovers emerged victorious despite one point staring down the barrel of a 2-0 deficit. Alas, a strong rally from Rovers two in form players with ample support acts from others ensured three points were achieved for the first time in six matches.
Mark Hughes made four changes to the team that fought valiantly to end Manchester City`s impressive home 100% record bringing in Benni McCarthy, Aaron Mokoena and Tugay in a new-look midfield and a game which saw Chris Samba absent through the birth of his first child.
The game started at a steady pace with neither side looking to over commit early – understandable considering both teams form.
However, it was Rovers who tried to force a tempo, particularly David Bentley. The right winger eluded the Derby defence on a number of occasions to fashion opportunities for himself or to create space for crosses. Having been neatly teed up by Benni McCarthy Bentlel saw a shot deflect wide and he followed this moments with a cross for Santa Cruz.
Popping up on the left this time, Bentley twisted and turned Dean Leacock inside out before crossing sumptuously from the by-line. The cross was perfect for Santa Cruz arriving at the back post to head into an empty net with Derby`s young deputy goalkeeper beaten all ends up. However, the linesman had his flag up after Bentley`s cross had swirled out.
Rovers were on top at this stage but were dealt a sucker-punch in the 27th minute when Derby took a shock lead with their first attack.
A casual advance forward saw Tyrone Mears with acres of space and time on Derby`s right. He played the ball into the area and as it looked like Ryan Nelsen would intercept, he was barged off the ball by Matt Oakley, who continued his run. Giles Barnes laid the ball back into Oakley`s path who drilled a shot through Brad Friedel`s legs.
Rovers were visibly stunned and all passing, movement and composure went out of the window. Things then took a turn for the worse when Nelsen was adjudged to have tripped Kenny Miller in the area. The decision looked harsh but the penalty was awarded. Steve Howard trudged up to take responsibility looking anything but confident.
He drilled his penalty low to Friedel`s right and the giant American blocked and smothered the rebound despite being kicked in the head.
Friedel`s heroics galvanised Rovers and within 90 seconds the score was 1-1. More exceptional work from Bentley saw him cross on his left foot. The ball was expertly brought down by McCarthy and his shot from five yards looked destined for the back of the net however, Price in Derby`s goal made a brilliant low-one handed save. But there was Santa Cruz to tap into an empty net.
This was followed by some controlled Rovers pressure culminating in a 25-yeard scorcher by David Bentley in the 42nd minute. Neat inter-play between Tugay, McCarthy and Mokoena resulted in the ball arriving at Bentley`s feet coming in from the left. He took a touch to steady himself before firing in low from distance. The game had been turned on its head and Rovers were very much in control.
A bewildered Paul Jewel shook things up at half-time with a change but it was Rovers who showed more attacking impetus in the opening throws of the second period. Three concise breaks would have reaped rewards but for poor final balls and decision making. Derby tried in vain to establish any kind of rhythm but if truth be known, Rovers didn`t look too uncomfortable.
A third goal would have killed Derby off and Rovers tried everything. In a two minute spell Santa Cruz was denied a second by, first, an expert save and then from the resulting corner, a clearance off the line. The clearance then presented Bentley with a chance to fashion an opening and he did, only to be denied by a post.
Alas, that was the closest either side came to equalising despite some Derby pressure at the end. It was a shame the players were forced to hold on in a match they had dominated but the result is the important thing and with three winnable games on the horizon, things could be looking up again.
His penalty save was a turning point, also made a smart stop from Oakley just before half-time.
A few casual errors.
Had a sound defensive display, much better.
Conceded the penalty and criticised for Derby’s opener. But he stood up like a man in the second half.
His positioning is brilliant and reading of the game superb. Excellent.
All that is lacking at the moment is the end product. As soon as that goal arrives he will be back.
Absolute star throughout. Made space, chances and scored one too.
Did some good defensive work.
A much better display from him.
You can tell he is back happy and confident when the fancy flicks come out and he showed great skill throughout. Unlucky with the equaliser.
Santa Cruz 9
Not quite sure why he came on for Gamst but looked lively, bundles of energy and even had a shot at goal with his right foot.
No time to make an impact.
No time to make an impact.