Written by Matt Stevenson
I was apprehensive before this one. As a relatively long-time AFCB supporter, it doesn’t feel right when the bookies have a Bournemouth away win as the most likely of the three options. So far this season we’d yet to go on a real run of wins in the league, three in November (Birmingham (A), Reading (H) and Forest (H)) being the current best. Although AFCB would equal that with victory against an erratic Blackburn side and, should that happen, be favourites to extend this with Coventry at home next Saturday. It’s a good time to hit form, particularly against an opponent that hadn’t won in five and had just lost at bottom-side Wycombe. But delve into those games further and there are creditable results (drawing at Norwich, and at home with Swansea, and losing by the only goal against Brentford in an even game). Blackburn don’t concede many either, since March they haven’t let in more than 1 goal, and have 2 clean sheets. Scoring hasn’t been easy for the Lancastrians though; in those last 7 games the ‘average’ result is 0.57 scored and 0.71 conceded per game. This looked set for a nervous game which would be a punch to the stomach if we lost, and feel a disappointment if we only got a point. Blackburn have been missing Adam Armstrong, 3rd in the Championship scoring table, but he was fit to return, we had three in the top 12, although one of these, Stanislas, wasn’t fit. Brooks was back, which was good news if the talented version shows up, less so if it is the off-form version seen recently. The other changes were predictable, Kelly in for Rico, and Pearson in for Rico. It’s beginning to feel like we have a fairly settled system, with a majority of the team picking itself. The front four of Solanke, Danjuma, Brooks and Billing would trouble any defence in this league, what is to be seen is how much we can get the ball to them and to what extent Blackburn park the bus.
The first 25 minutes were drab and of low quality, as though each team was only allowed up to four passes before they had to give the ball back to the opposition. In the 29th minute, however, Smith played a one-two with Brooks (with a backheel we’d have moaned at if it had been cut-out, which it almost was) and progressed down the right. He crossed it in to Billing on the edge of the ‘D’ who fed Lerma, out to Danjuma on the left-hand side. He jinked inside in trademark style, but the shot was blocked but fell perfectly to the lurking Billing to rifle it in: 1-0 to the Cherries. The goal woke Blackburn up, and for the rest of the half, we were under pressure, continuing the worrying trend of almost dozing in the run-up to half-time. We limited Mowbray’s team to long-range efforts and had glimpses of breaking on the counter-attack, but I was pleased to hear the whistle for half-time as we weren’t the better team at that stage. The question now was whether being in front would reduce our attacking intent, hopefully not, as whilst we appear to be handling set-pieces better, I wouldn’t back us to get a clean sheet if we invited pressure. As an aside, Danjuma’s dead-ball delivery wasn’t an improvement on Stanislas’, maybe the plan is to catch the opponents by surprise when we put in a good one.
The ref may have left his cards in the dressing room in the first half, but there were quick bookings for Lerma and Solanke, and a very soft free-kick for Pearson on Johnson, perhaps he was feeling pressured by the cardboard cut-outs in the stand. We had a step-over corner that Billing skied, but the pressure was mounting, when Carter Vickers performed a brilliant bloke (although Cook was diving in too) in a near replica of the chance Billing had put away. We were playing on the counter, and a sloppy pass from Brooks to Billing when it seemed easier to find the Dane brought groans of frustration. Almost immediately Stacey came on for Brooks although this was probably pre-planned. The game was scrappy, which is always worrying if you are only one-up. Then two pieces of skill had looked to have sealed it. First, a great drag-back turn from Pearson who has chopped down, with the ball running to Danjuma, with the ref either playing a good advantage or continuing not to award AFCB standard free-kicks. The Dutchman nutmegged the defender and coolly slotted it in the corner. 2-0. There were a surprising six minutes added which were more eventful than we would have liked. Smith brought down Gallagher for a clear penalty. Armstrong thumped it down the middle and Begovic diving to his right kicked it out. With his heartbeat racing, Begovic then came disastrously for a freekick approaching the halfway line and was stranded with a flick on, but Cook cleared off the line. We hung on, but the last few minutes were worrying, particularly when rivals were winning. That’s 3 wins on the spin and effectively only 7 teams can make the playoffs. With Barnsley and Reading having tougher games (on paper) than us in the next round, we may break back into the top six next week.
Man of the match against Blackburn
Begovic: 7. A mixed display, he had little to do but saved a penalty, but over-excitement immediately after almost cost us a goal
Kelly: 8. Hardly put a foot wrong all game. I’m still surprised by those that don’t rate him; he is firmly established as our first-choice left-back.
Carter-Vickers: 8. One exceptional block and generally had Armstrong in his pocket most of the game
Cook: 8. A no-nonsense performance and a goal-line clearance. The Carter-Vickers / Cook partnership is blossoming at the right time.
Smith: 7. Did well for the first goal, but a rash tackle for the penalty put us under pressure
Pearson: 8. Was quiet in the first half, but the drag-back turn brought a smile to my face and resulted in a goal. Suitably irritated opponents too.
Lerma: 7. Did his job well. Patrolled in front of the back four, and presumably was told not to break forward too often
Billing: 7. Continuing his goal-scoring run, but became a little more anonymous in the second half. It’s a credit to him that we didn’t have a better replacement in the ‘10’ role even when he was fading.
Danjuma: 8 (MOTM). A close call between Arnie and Kelly / Carter-Vickers / Cook for the MOTM but the second goal clinched it and it was the type of skill you pay to watch.
Brooks: 5. Was largely missing for a lot of the game, and is still coming up to speed. Needs that extra bit of match fitness to bring back the spark, but the embers flashed a little. The 70 minutes he got into his legs will help
Solanke: 6. A whole-hearted performance from Solanke, but didn’t get a chance all game.
We weren’t great, but an away win is always a good result.
Woodgate just needs to stick with this setup and pretty much that starting XI (Stan in for Brooks) until the end of the season now. Billing as a 10 further up the pitch and the likes of Lerma and Pearson doing the dirty stuff. We’re a team that has suffered from too many changes over the last few seasons. It’s a system we have the personnel to play and just need to drill it into the players for the rest of the season that that is how we play. It’s our best chance of promotion. – Join the conversation, click here.