A rare win away to Blackburn, but certainly not undeserved, as Harry Drew explains.
City returned to Lancashire for a third time in two weeks on Saturday, hoping to put last weekend’s defeat at Burnley behind them. Although Rovers have been in woeful form of late, the Tigers’ most recent trips to Ewood Park had yielded little joy. So with the form book pointing to an away win but the historical record suggesting that City might struggle, this fixture wasn’t an easy one to predict.
In the end, the game followed the logic of the form book. Blackburn were even worse than their league position suggests, a City victory never looking in doubt once they had fine-tuned their attacking game. The partnership of Mo Diame and Abel Hernandez up front again proved fruitful, while the back five demonstrated why City have the second-best defensive record in the football league.
Steve Bruce largely maintained his faith in the side that lost at Burnley, making just one change that surprised most City fans prior to kick-off. Tom Huddlestone, starting in the Championship for the first time in over two months, was in for Isaac Hayden. The widespread bemusement would be forgotten at 5pm as Huddlestone put in a display befitting of a midfielder who has spent almost all of his career in the Premier League.
In other team news, the returning Harry Maguire had to settle for a place on the bench, while neither of the two new signings featured in the eighteen-man squad.
The first half was a slow burner and it was Blackburn who had the first real attempts on goal. On 15 minutes Ben Marshall cut inside onto his left foot and forced a decent save out of McGregor. Not long after Craig Conway turned and let fly from 30 yards out, but this time City’s keeper saved comfortably.
At the other end little was being created in the way of clear-cut chances, but Hernandez looked as lively as ever and Diame was showing glimpses of his class. Indeed City’s best moment of the half came when Diame collected the ball from way out on the left, nutmegged two Blackburn players and shot just over the crossbar from the edge of the area. Had it gone in, we would have been talking about a possible goal of the season. On the stroke of half-time Moses Odubajo made a crucial block to deflect Darragh Lenihan’s effort wide of the post.
Excluding the Diame moment of magic, the first 45 minutes had been relatively uninspiring. Yet everyone knew City had more in their locker, and in the second period this potential was illustrated quite brilliantly. Shortly after the restart Andy Robertson received the ball from Sam Clucas on the left and squared for Hernandez, whose shot was off target. Hernandez then turned provider for Clucas who found space at the far post, but his low shot went across the face of goal and wide.
Moments later City took the lead. Diame played the ball through for Hernandez, and a mistake from Rovers defender Elliot Ward allowed the Uruguayan to nonchalantly round the goalkeeper and roll the ball into an empty net. This deserved lead could have been doubled moments later, but Hernandez’s dangerous cut-back from the right-hand-side was cleared.
Throwing away leads is not something City usually do, but they were almost caught out near the hour mark after a mishit Blackburn corner found its way to the far post – Elliot Ward attempted to atone for his earlier error, but his effort was cleared off the line by Robertson. Perhaps this warning shot motivated City to go for another goal, as minutes later they were 2-0 up. A textbook through ball from Huddlestone set Hernandez in on goal and rather than take it himself, he unselfishly squared the ball for Diame who finished calmly to double the Tigers’ lead.
Blackburn looked a beaten team as City commanded the game with the air of a side who know that they are top of the league on merit. With one eye on Tuesday’s encounter with Brighton Hernandez was taken off and replaced by Akpom, who looked certain to score minutes after coming on, but his tame shot from 10 yards out was saved by Jason Steel following a quick break by Andy Robertson.
In the closing stages McGregor was called into action only sporadically, saving well from Marshall and then ex-Tiger Corry Evans. Other than those two instances City saw out the game with ease, undoubtedly helped by the inadequacy of their opponents. This victory sees City back at the summit of the Championship league table, and with Burnley only able to draw at Reading, the lead over 3rd place has been extended to three points. On to Tuesday and a vital game against a resurgent Brighton.
Harry Drew @hdrew95