Photo Gallery: Blackburn’s Junior Hoilett brushes Norwich City aside with stunner
Blackburn Rovers 2, Norwich City 0: The Beatles once made reference in song to “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”.
A quick glance at the Premier League table on Saturday morning suggested quite a few of them might be in the Rovers defence, as their tally of 73 goals conceded – an average of well over two per match – represented the joint worst record in the division ahead of the weekend programme.
Like Norwich City, Steve Kean’s relegation-threatened team had managed just two clean sheets all season, and took longer than any other side to record their first shut-out, at Wolves in March.
John Lennon once revealed that his lyrics referred to a report on potholes in the town, but if there were any yawning gaps opening up at Ewood Park on this occasion, they were in the visitors’ rearguard – and at just the wrong time.
If there is one thing worse than conceding a goal just before half-time, it is conceding another one almost immediately after the interval.
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So it was that goals from Mauro Formica and Junior Hoilett, one splendidly worked and the other a brilliant solo effort, were enough to see off Paul Lambert’s Canaries and condemn them to the first defeat they have suffered this season at the hands of one of the bottom five clubs.
It is true, despite pre-match comments to the contrary, that Blackburn had a good deal more to play for than City, whose place in the top flight is secure for another year, even if the mathematical niceties are taking longer than expected to tidy up.
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But there was a curious end-of-season feel to the whole occasion, as much in Rovers’ play as in that of the Canaries, and apart from those two excellent goals – excellent, at least from an attacking point of view – there was little on show to dispel the thought that the two sides will not meet again next season.
With James Vaughan starting a match for the first time since his summer move from Everton, City in fact started more brightly than their hosts.
From an Elliott Ward free-kick, skipper Grant Holt forced ’keeper Paul Robinson to save, diving to his right.
Vaughan had his one real chance after 10 minutes when Andrew Surman hooked back Elliott Bennett’s cross, but he miskicked from 10 yards and the ball struck his standing foot.
There were a couple of scares for City, first when Morten Gamst Pedersen swung a free-kick into the penalty area and the ball appeared to brush Russell Martin’s hand, unnoticed by the officials, then when goalkeeper John Ruddy was unable to hold Hoilett’s cross and Ryan Bennett’s first touch knocked the ball goalwards before he recovered smartly to hook it clear.
With half an hour gone, Jonny Howson produced City’s best effort, a swerving 25-yard drive that Robinson had to tip over the top. But Blackburn stepped up the pace as the interval approached and were eventually rewarded.
They were desperately close to a goal seven minutes before the break when a superb cross from Hoilett was headed back by Pedersen and Yakubu produced a double-footed overhead kick that struck the foot of the post.
The first goal came four minutes from half-time, however, Formica’s fourth of the season.
Hoilett, with just a suspicion of handball, sent Yakubu away on the left and the striker pulled the ball back to Pedersen, whose inch-perfect cross was gleefully volleyed home by the unmarked Formica. It was a sweet move, but the five yellow shirts between Pedersen and the goalscorer suggested the defending might have been tighter.
The same applied after 49 minutes when Hoilett scored the second. Taking possession from a Marcus Olsson pass wide on the left, he weaved inside Russell Martin and curled in a wonderful right-foot shot from the corner of the penalty area that just brushed Ruddy’s fingertips as he leapt to his left.
There were shades of Sergio Aguero’s goal at Carrow Road a week earlier, but little danger of the accompanying goal rush.
Lambert made three substitutions in the space of seven minutes to try to salvage something from the game and the introduction of Anthony Pilkington and Aaron Wilbraham at least gave City more purpose and urgency.
Pilkington, not given the start he had hoped for in his birthplace but given a warm reception by his home town crowd, did well to carve out a chance after 72 minutes but Wilbraham moved just too soon and his cross rolled behind the striker. Moments later, Wilbraham forced Robinson to save low to his right with a smart effort, and he was close again seconds later when he could not quite get his head to the ball at the far post after Ryan Bennett and Pedersen challenged for a corner.
Bizarrely, the team securing a vital victory in their relegation battle played out the rest of the game amid concerted chants for the manager and club owners to go. For all that they were beaten in rather tame fashion, City can be very grateful that they have no such worries.