To the outsider, Blackburn Rovers had always been one of the more stable Premier League clubs. However, since the arrival of Indian Poultry giants Venky’s last month, the off-field business at Ewood Park (covered elsewhere by Ian and Mark) has seen Rovers become the Premier League’s latest basket case.
On the pitch, Steve Kean has had a loss at home to Stoke and a draw against West Ham in his opening games, and needed a win to end 2010 on a personal high note. Kean hasn’t looked to make many changes to the team since Sam Allardyce left the club, with the only new face being highly rated teenage centre-half Grant Hanley alongside Ryan Nelsen. Hanley’s presence is down to an ankle injury to Christopher Samba, and Phil Jones’ knee ligament damage, but his performances so far suggest that Samba may struggle to regain the position, regardless of his alleged recent fallout with Kean.
Another area in which Blackburn have retained their continuity is their style, with a number of trademark physical challenges in the opening minutes, and even before the hosts have settled, Blackburn take the lead. Morten Gamst Pedersen provides a looping pass to Kalinic, who beats the offside trap and places the ball past Scott Carson for his first league goal in over three months. 0-1.
Initially, West Brom try and play Blackburn at their own robust game, but most of the early free-kicks are awarded to away side, and it’s only after they revert back to their own game plan that they start looking comfortable. Graham Dorrans forces an excellent save from Paul Robinson, James Morrison also goes close for the hosts, while Kalinic comes close to doubling the lead. However, it’s Albion who are on top, and they equalise on seventeen minutes. Somen Tchoyi receives the ball on the right from Morrison, and Tchoyi’s cross finds Jerome Thomas at the far post, and the ex-Charlton man can’t miss. 1-1.
The rest of the half is entertaining, if not filled with chances, with David Dunn having two of the best openings, but one goes high into the stand, and the other loops tamely short of goal. At half-time comes an unlikely turning point in the game, as Paul Robinson has a calf injury, and is unable to continue, and his deputy is Rovers’ current third choice keeper Mark Bunn. Bunn was former Rovers manager Paul Ince’s last signing, for a six figure fee from Northampton Town in 2008, and with second choice keeper and England Under-21 International Frank Fielding gaining first team experience on loan with Derby, Bunn takes his chance with both hands, pulling off a number of saves, including one from a Peter Odemwingie drive within a minute of the restart. Despite that, it’s Blackburn begin the second half with a flourish. Pedersen floats in a corner, for Nelsen to head across goal, and Kalinic has an easy finish for his second of the game. 1-2.
A short spell of defensive possession by Albion almost ends in disaster, as Carson inexplicably passes the ball to Kalinic who fails to take the chance. It doesn’t take long for another defensive mistake to gift Blackburn a third goal. Pedersen takes another corner, and the only people in the ground that fail to see El-Hadji Diouf stroll over to collect the short corner are the home defence. El-Hadji Diouf has time to pick out his namesake Mame Diouf, and Blackburn have a two goal lead. 1-3.
Albion kick into life and start pushing forward, and they get a helping hand, as Kalinic has a moment of madness, and lunges at Paul Scharner with an ugly challenge that was fortunate not to break the Swiss midfielder’s leg, and is sent off by referee Paul Dowd. El-Hadji Diouf shows his unhappiness at the decision by trying to talk his way into the book – fortunately for him he does not, as five minutes later he gets booked for diving. Albion surge forward, with wave after wave of attack coming down the wings, and through the middle, without resorting to just lumping the ball in the box – some commentators may point to this as a failing, but Blackburn are organised enough to expect the direct balls, and it’s through taking the ball wide, and keeping the ball on the floor that is creating the chances. The problem on the day is not the quality of the delivery, but the quality of the finish, and in some cases, the quality of Bunn’s goalkeeping. Bunn pulls off a number of excellent saves to help not only keep the score down, but to keep Rovers in front. The pick of his saves is a stunning stop from substitute Simon Cox that is one of the best saves of the season. Paul Scharner also heads a free-kick against the crossbar, and Tchoyi fails to convert the rebound, and the goals just won’t come for the home side.
The last major action of the game, comes as Blackburn break with Mame Diouf breaking down the right hand side, only to be hauled back by what can only be described as a frustrated lunge by Gabriel Tamas. There are defenders covering, but it’s worthy of a red card on it’s own, as the challenge is from behind, as well as being both cynical and reckless referee Dowd has no other choice but to reduce Albion to ten men.
The game ends with the Blackburn fans chanting Steve Kean’s name, as they end the year – on the pitch at least – on a high. As for West Brom, it’s as familiar a story under Roberto Di Matteo as it was under Tony Mowbray – the manager’s philosophy in trying to play the game the right way is undone by individual mistakes, rather than the refusal to go more direct, and the failure to pick up El-Hadji Diouf for the third goal was particularly unforgivable. As for Blackburn, their form so far under Kean is very much mid-table, and much attention will be turned to the signings that they make over the January transfer window (an area that Sam Allardyce usually excelled in), and whether they have been identified by Steve Kean, or have come through Venky’s links with the Kentaro sports agency – and more importantly, whether they can be as organised as the existing players at the club, when defending a lead away from home.
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