Hosts come from behind to salvage a draw but a point is not enough for either side as they continue to battle the dropBlackburn Rovers played out a nervy 1-1 draw at home to Birmingham City with neither side able to propel themselves out of the relegation mire.
A Lee Bowyer header from merely a yard out gave Alex McLeish’s side something of an undeserved lead soon after the half hour mark but Junior Hoilett, who was superb throughout, equalised on the stroke of half time.
An air of tentative uncertainty was palpable at Ewood Park beneath the glorious Blackburn sunshine and Steve Kean’s teamsheet certainly read with more than a little caution. Santa Cruz playing just in front of a packed midfield five certainly suggested that the man appointed in December looked upon the clash as a cup final, though with both sides sitting only two points above the drop zone, it would have been difficult to blame him.
In contrast, Alex McLeish travelled to Lancashire with a starting line-up that emanated confidence in his side, with Cameron Jerome and in-form veteran Kevin Phillips given the nod with a view to taking all three points back to the Midlands.
The game kicked off amid an atmosphere charged with nervous energy and it was the hosts who responded with greater endeavour with David Hoilett, a talent whose stock has risen at frightening pace this season causing the early problems. Beating Parnaby for pace down the right hand side, the Canadian cut a fine ball inside to Jermaine Jones only for the on-loan Schalke man to lose his footing at the pivotal moment. It was certainly a statement of intent from a Blackburn side with plenty to play for.
Birmingham, to their credit, refused to lie down and looked to respond instantly but their willingness to go forward was nearly punished thanks to a Hoilett overflowing with confidence. Felled on the right hand-side, the Canadian let Pedersen have a free-kick which picked out Samba superbly. The towering Congolese defender met it well with his head but just misdirected it wide of Foster's right-hand post. A second let off for the visitors and 10 minutes were yet to pass.
The initial vigour of the opening exchanges had been quelled somewhat by the 20 minute mark as both sides look to patiently pick apart their opponent. Chances were indeed few and far between in what had become a scrappy encounter, with Blackburn having failed to capitalise on their opening dominance.
They would soon pay for it as is so often the way in the Premier League, as Birmingham took the lead just after the half hour mark. Gardner picked up the ball in the middle of midfield and quickly set Larsson on his way down the right and the Swede, showing off his quality, clipped a fine ball on to the head of Bowyer and the midfielder couldn't miss. It was the cruellest hammer blow for a home side that had offered much more in quality than their league position would suggest.
Opener | Bowyer gives the visitors the lead from point blank range in the 32nd minute
It could have so nearly been two only five minutes later as Birmingham, whose mood had changed in an instant, were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out for a foul on the increasingly influential Craig Gardner and it was Larsson, now Blackburn's chief tormentor who hit a fantastic effort against the upright. Robinson was helpless and as half-time approached, it appeared that Blackburn were as well.
But they weren't going to go in at half time without a fight and it was Hoilett, the man who had proven himself the thorn in Birmingham's collective side all half who got Rovers back into the game. Stealing the ball from Liam Ridgewell, who had been far too lax in possession, the Canadian broke free on his own towards Foster's goal, rounded the former England 'keeper with consummate ease and slotted home with a cool head to send both sides in at half time level.
Birmingham returned from half time without the influential Roger Johnson who had taken a bad knock to head just minutes before Hoilett's strike. Curtis Davies came on and Blackburn looked to take advantage of a visiting defence without its main man.
It didn't take them too long to cause problems and as was becoming the theme of the afternoon, it was Hoilett's pace that was causing problems for Alex McLeish's side. Collecting the ball down the right-hand channel, the 20-year old jinked and jived his way past Stuart Parnaby to dink a ball directly onto the head of Santa Cruz, only for the Paraguayan to be kept out cruelly by the crossbar. The introduction of Davies had certainly unsettled the Birmingham defence, who were struggling hold back the wave of blue and white.
However, Hoilett was soon to be replaced with an injury by Brett Emerton and Blackburn's not-so-secret weapon had gone when his side needed him most. As the only overt creative outlet on the pitch for the home side, the reaction of Steve Kean's side was to be pivotal.
Both sides were proving sloppy in possession with the effects of a full-blooded first half seemingly sapping the energy of both sides as the ball swapped hands with an alarming frequency in and around the centre circle.
It wouldn't be a relegation battle without controversy and referee Chris Foy delivered his seemingly obligatory contentious decision with just over six minutes left as substitute Benjani, under pressure from Ridgewell, went to ground on the penalty spot only for the Merseyside official to wave away his, and the Ewood crowd's protests as both sides looked to find a vital winner at the last.
The nails of everybody in the stadium were being chewed ferociously as four minutes of injury time were played out in the boxes of both sides and Kevin Phillips so nearly picked up a late winner only to see his strike blocked by the youngster Jones.
Nerves were jangling all over as the full-time whistle went. A point apiece does little to quell the fears of the great drop for either side but in a relegation fight such as this, neither manager will be left overly disappointed as all clubs at the bottom look to take what they can get.
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