Winter Warmer – Blackburn report

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Latics 5-3 Blackburn
Saturday 15th December 2007

Steve Bruce would probably have preferred a 1-0 win, but this game gave the fans exactly what they want from a derby(ish) game. The cockles of Wiganers, frozen by the weather, 13 games without a win and last week’s thumping at the Reebok, will have thawed some following a clash that suggested there is more than a little life left in Latics tilt at survival. However, every silver lining has a cloud and all that and the game left as many issues to be addressed as the ones that it appeared to answer.

It would be churlish to dwell on the negatives of Saturday for too long, however it would be silly to ignore them. That Latics bagged more goals in this game than they had in the previous ten is all well and good, but the fact is that if they hadn’t they could have well thrown away a winning position that in any circumstances should be unassailable.

That Latics may be unfamiliar to the position of having to close down games, may go some way to explaining how they were pegged level after taking a three goal lead. However each of the goals pointed to defensive weaknesses that go well beyond first date jitters and no doubt amongst Steve Bruce’s kind words and congratulations over the result there will be some hard truths about schoolboy defending and keeping to your job.

With that out of the way it’s time to sing the praises of a team that I’d written off has having no chance in this match. I will admit that I was wrong, that Latics showed themselves capable of standing up to a team like Blackburn of going toe to toe and coming out with their noses in front. Mark Hughes’ may argue that his team didn’t perform on the day, for the first half at least, and whilst there’s a grain of truth in that, it’s wrong to take away the credit due for Latics’ part in keeping the visitors on the back foot.

The three goal lead may have owed much to defensive errors but each of those was forced as Heskey and Bent turned the screws on an uncharacteristically frail Blackburn back line. None of the goals may have come from the prettiest of play but with Bent’s control, Landzaat’s calmness, a tidy finish from Bent (again) and Taylor’s free kick Latics showed they are far from the mugs they’ve looked in recent weeks. Or at least they showed that the front six were capable of much more than casual observers would have given them credit for.

So with three goals to the good and half time approaching, Latics could have been excused for thinking they were home and hosed, we’ve covered some of why they weren’t already but it would be remiss not to refer to Blackburn’s approach to the second half.

As I’d said in my match preview, if hard work isn’t working for them then Blackburn aren’t averse to fighting their way to the points, and so it proved here. Their opening goal had given them a sniff of weakness on the part of the home team, and they looked to exploit that. The tackles were noticeably harder, the arms that little bit higher and their complaining vociferous. In short they looked to rattle Latics, and it worked.

At the same time it probably proved their undoing. The second and third goals sandwiching the sending off of Brett Emerton for reasons that should probably be described as somewhere between gross stupidity and mardness. With a booking already to his name, taking the law into his hands following Ryan Taylor’s, unpunished, late challenge was only going to end one way. Whether it prevent Rovers the chance of three points… well, we’ll never know will we.

From the point that Santa (I’m probably wasting loads of puns there) Cruz bagged his and his team’s third goal no one would have taken odds on Latics repeating last Sunday’s feat of conceding four goals. The only people who had anything else in mind were the players themselves and they responded magnificently.

Taking the lead from their opponents, Latics fought back, got stuck in and regained some momentum. That the two goals that snatched a victory that had been well deserved at half time had a hint of offside about them hardly matters. What matters is that a team, that previously looked like they could be toughened up by the inclusion of Frank Spencer, took a massive blow then got up off the canvas and finished the job off.

I took time earlier to give the defence their collective demerit, so now it’s time for the plaudits.

Credit to Steve Bruce, for motivating his team to a performance that seemed, to be generous, unlikely, for dropping his most creative player for the good of the team and for getting Paul Scharner out of the midfield (but not for installing him at the back).

Credit to Denny Landzaat for building on this season’s improved form and putting in a performance that will go some way to silencing his critics.

Credit to Marcus Bent, not only for his hat-trick but for finally taking up the challenge of leading the front line in the absence of Emile Heskey.

And finally, credit to Ryan Taylor for coming in and showing them all how it should be done, for defending as well as creating and for a free kick that was worth £15 of anyone’s money on its own.

The rest get credit too, but these were the men that built this win and finally gave us some hope that something can be made of what has smear been a season bordering on high farce.

Any one who read Saturday’s match preview is probably thinking that this is where the groveling apology kicks in, and maybe it should, but you’ll have to forgive me for the time being, I’ve seen too many false dawns to get carried away just yet. On plenty of levels, Saturday’s performance was just what the doctor ordered but not many ills are cured with a single dose of medicine. If we get to the New Year having completed the full course then things will look a whole lot more healthy.

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