Both teams paid the penalty today for poor finishing, with a greater portion aimed at Sheffield United. Neil Warnock`s men were wasteful throughout in a game that they could and should have easily won. This is a poor reflection for a Blackburn Rovers side strongly tipped to pick up their first win of the season today.
As the end of the summer sun poured into the stadium the game kicked-off at a snails pace with the only incident worthy of mention within a drab opening ten minutes falling to Francis Jeffers, replacing the injured Jason Roberts, but couldn`t make the most of an early header.
After a prolonged period of possession for the home side they finally engineered their first real opening just after the quarter-hour mark. Chris Armstrong pumped a long ball forward and in typical early season fashion, the Rovers defence was split. Rob Hulse, the former Leeds United striker and firm fans favourite, raced into the opening between Zurab Khizanishvili and the uncertain Andre Ooijer only to lash his shot well wide of the goal. This seemed to rouse Rovers and they hit back with their best opening.
A sumptuous cross from the restricted David Bentley was narrowly missed by Francis Jeffers charging into the six yard box. Chris Morgan missed his clearance and the ball made its way through to Benni McCarthy at the back post. His instant control was disturbed by the eager Morten Gamst Pedersen and thus, he only managed to force a corner from a promising opening.
This began a brief period of dominance for Rovers, which only engineered a couple of poorly taken corners. Sheffield United pressed at the end of the half but Mike Dean brought a disappointing half to a conclusion after a single minute of injury-time.
The second period certainly began with a greater urgency from Rovers, with Jeffers narrowly caught off-side from an inch perfect reverse ball from the returning Tugay. His influence had been subdued during the first half and the early indications in the second half suggested that he was going to get a lot more of the ball. However, it was United who continued to press and enjoy the lions share of possession in what was becoming an open game.
Despite sporadic long distance efforts on Brad Friedel`s goal Rovers looked the more threatening on the break with the improving partnership of David Bentley and Brett Emerton down Rovers right beginning to flourish.
The pair dominated proceedings for a while with the wily Bentley whipping balls across the home side`s six yard area and Emerton providing professional assistance behind him.
Then in the seventieth minute the game finally exploded into life. Mike Dean, who up until this point had stayed well clear of controversy after his much published display at the Charlton and Bolton game, awarded Rovers a soft penalty. It appeared that David Unsworth nudged McCarthy in the area and he went down rather easily. Dean pointed to the spot instantaneously to send Rovers` travelling support into raptures.
Neill stepped up to take the penalty in typically commanding style that epitomized his approach to the game. A confident strike was greeted with a crushing crescendo that echoed around the ground as Paddy Kenny lurched to his left to palm the ball away. His name echoed around the stadium as United found a new vigour in their play. From here on in the indications suggested there was only going to be one winner.
A revitalized United side bulldozed their way forward, pounding Friedel`s goal with a number of interesting long range efforts; the third of which forced Friedel into a smart parry that resulted in a corner.
Before Michael Tonge could take the corner, Mike Dean felt it necessary to have a word with Khizanishvili about shirt pulling and holding. Dean blew his whistle and the ball was swung timidly across, headed away by the improving Ooijer. After a brief delay though, Dean blew his whistle again and emphatically pointed to the spot as if proving a point. The point was that Khizanishvili had not adhered to his advice and a penalty was awarded. Seats clattering matched the clapping that applauded the referee`s decision as the Kop exploded with a surge of fans eagerly leaning forward. David Unsworth stepped up in a manner that suggested United`s wait for their next goal was soon to be over.
Unsworth placed the ball to Friedel`s right and the American guessed correctly as he parried the ball back into open play. Critics who have suggested that Friedel is starting to get too old will watch his display today at Bramall Lane and feel bloated on a rather large slice of humble pie. United and their fans were stunned. An eerie silence was cast over the stadium, pierced by the jubilant singing of the away fans.
This should have swung the busy pendulum back in Rovers favour. In fact all it did was create a frenetic pace going from either end. The game continued to be scrappy with the desired long-ball tactic still proving popular with both sides.
Shabani Nonda, who had earlier replaced a dejected Benni McCarthy, began to demonstrate why he once cost Monaco £15 million with some smart touches and rapid movement. However, he failed to have any great impact alongside an anonymous Jeffers, who is still lacking the sharpness that made him an England international. It was United who looked the more threatening, with youngster Christian Nade particularly impressive.
Then came the most controversial decision of the afternoon that evoked complete bemusement amongst the Rovers players. Another aimless long ball was sent into the area and was left by the exceptional Khizanishvili after orders from his confident captain, Lucas Neill. The ball made its way through to Neill who calmly played the ball off of his chest, a move synonymous with him, and into the hands of Brad Friedel.
Having seen the linesman flagging furiously, Dean once again awarded United a penalty. This time Unsworth shirked the responsibility, leaving it to Hulse, much to the appreciation of a euphoric Kop. He charged forward and placed the penalty to Friedel`s left. Astonishingly, Friedel guessed correctly again, parrying the ball back into the path on Hulse. As a mixture of emotions overwhelmed a stunned crowd, Hulse hesitantly fired in his rebound only to see it come back past him again as Friedel somehow recovered to make another save.
The American wasn`t finished there either. In injury time he expertly diverted a point-blank Hulse effort after Ooijer had dithered on the ball.
The home fans left perplexed as to how they had failed to win whereas the away support exited on a high as if they had won. An ironic end to game that would have seen United happy with a point at the start and Rovers expecting a win.
Hughes told Sky Sports afterwards, “I thought we had the better of it, but we need more care in the final third, and if we had that, we could have won it comfortably. I thought all three penalties were poor decisions, and on another day that could have cost us.”
“The first one was hard to take, and the second was even harder.”
United`s manager, Neil Warnock agreed with Hughes on that point stating that, “The third one was the most controversial.”
Hughes also took time out to praise Friedel on the club`s web-site, “He`s earned his money and we`re grateful to him but we shouldn`t have been in that position.”