After the loss to Sheffield United last week, many City fans were resigned to missing out on the playoffs. My conclusion was that City had players who could improve that performance, but that they were on the treatment table.
I was half right.
The surprise inclusion of Onel Hernandez looked set to give City the pace and power so lacking in the recent performances. Even more of a surprise was that Kenny McLean was missing with a knee injury. David Wagner shuffled his depleted pack to include Jacob Sorensen and Liam Gibbs and left the soon-to-depart Teemu Pukki on the bench.
Blackburn opened the game with a move that was to set the pattern of their play in the first half. A ball down the right, targeting the gap between Dimi Giannoulis and Ben Gibson. Rankin-Costello’s cross was easily claimed by Angus Gunn though.
Then we saw what we had been missing. Hernandez won the ball in midfield and embarked on a powerful, bulldozing run, before letting off a slightly weak shot that curled just wide.
Blackburn were looking really hesitant at the back. Josh Sargent, playing in his preferred position, was hassling and harrying, forcing a mistake that Gibbs was nearly able to capitalize upon.
For three or four minutes, Blackburn were unable to get out of their own half.
City’s persistence and dominance in the early stages paid off after 11 minutes. Gibson played a long ball out which was won by Sargent and touched to Sorensen. His first-time ball was wonderfully placed. Gibbs’ first touch took two defenders out of the game and his pace saw him race onto the ball and smash the ball home from the edge of the area.
It was the sort of quick, pacy attack missing from City’s repertoire of late.
Blackburn were shaken by the goal and their play became scrappy as a result. It was fully five minutes before they got anything going. A rare attack down the City right before quickly switching to the left saw Gunn out quickly to claim the ball on the floor. Somehow he managed to grasp the ball behind his back whilst lying on the ground!
Blackburn had their first real spell of pressure, but it was scratchy, attritional football, more akin to rugby in the way that they advanced down the pitch. Pretty and free-flowing it was not.
On 21 minutes, they forced two corners in quick succession. The second was a near post flick across the area, which was cleared as far as Sargent. His quick ball forward set Hernandez free but for once he lost out to the defenders, winning a throw high up the pitch.
For the last third of the first half, City began to re-exert their dominance in the game. Gabriel Sara scooped a ball wide to Giannoulis. His pullback to Hernandez was fed to Max Aarons who hit a low shot that keeper Sears had to push around the post.
Gibson received a yellow card for a tactical trip to stop a Blackburn counterattack, and Blackburn resumed a slow advance down the pitch.
On 37 minutes, a cross into the box was headed clear by Aarons, but as the ball came in, Grant Hanley went to ground unchallenged. The City players immediately called for a stretcher and the big Scot was carried off by six bearers, clearly in considerable pain.
Andy Omobamidele took the City captain’s place as City finished the half on the front foot.
The second half resumed in the same pattern, with City largely in control. Sargent was doing a great job of winning the aerial duels and bringing other players into the game. The Blackburn defence were never able to dominate him and he occupied two players for much of the half.
On 47 minutes, again he was strong again, holding the ball and then playing Gibbs through. This time Sears was able to get out and beat the City youngster to the ball.
Then Omobamidele made a great tackle at the back before laying a beautiful ball to Sargent. He battled well to try to get to a goal-scoring position but lost out in the end.
It was the 53rd minute before Blackburn threatened. A ball over the top to Rankin-Costello looked offside – but what do I know after the Sheffield goal last week? As Gunn came out, the Blackburn defender was able to lob him but there was no one in the box to capitalize and the ball was headed out for a corner.
A minute later and City doubled their lead. Sorensen played the ball to Hernandez, whose powerful run allowed him to play forward to Sara. As he ran into the box, everyone expected a cross but the Brazilian somehow lashed the ball into the far corner in front of the 1800 City fans.
Omobamidele had been doing really well at the back, but on 58 minutes, he tangled with Gallagher. Nothing was given but the Blackburn man came back for more, cynically tripping the young Irishman. Omobamidele then showed his inexperience by getting up and pushing the Blackburn attacker. Both got a yellow card as a result.
Then Gallagher was in the action again, easily beating Gibson at left back and putting a great cross into the City box. Again, there was no one to target.
However, Gibson then went to ground feeling his hamstring. It looked very similar to the injury he suffered a few weeks back.
City re-shuffled. Sorensen went into defence. Gibbs dropped to a more defensive role, Sargent dropped to the number 10 slot and Pukki came on up front.
Pukki played like a man possessed. A complete contrast to the disgruntled figure who trudged off the pitch last week. He unsettled the defenders and managed to nick the ball and create opportunities on several occasions.
Despite the changes, City carried on in the same manner. Sorensen made a great tackle which was picked up by Sara whose quick ball forward found fellow Brazilian, Marquinhos. He crossed to Hernandez but his cutback was cleared.
On 73 minutes, Blackburn made a double substitution which almost paid dividends immediately, but the eventual shot was easy for Gunn
The home team began to edge back into the contest. Giannoulis gave away a poor ball in midfield. The ball came to Thomas and his cross was put out for a corner.
The corner came in, there was a scramble as the ball hit Sorensen in the chest. Gunn somehow clawed the ball upwards and Pukki completed the clearance on the line.
Adam Idah and Sam McCallum came on for the tiring Hernandez an Sargent on 81 minutes.
Giannoulis made amends for his earlier howler by playing a great ball to Pukki. He burst into the box but was dispossessed on the edge of the six-yard area. From the resultant corner, McCallum had a shot blocked before Giannoulis hit his now traditional shot high and wide.
As the game drew to a close, Blackburn turned up the pressure, forcing a sharp save by Gunn after a Brereton-Diaz shot, and a header off the line by McCallum after a looping header cleared Gunn.
So the playoff chase is on again. The manner of this performance was a complete contrast to the last few games. City had energy, pace and passion aplenty. Blackburn looked disjointed and very, very ordinary. Their performance adds to the hope that City might just sneak over the line.
But at what cost?
Hanley has surely played his last game for some time. Gibson also seems to have an ongoing hamstring issue – maybe he can come straight back like last time. It’s no coincidence that Blackburn’s most productive period came when Gibson went off.
Omobabidele is a fine replacement for either, but a sustained spell with a makeshift central defensive partner isn’t going to help.
So sit down and strap in. There are more twists and turns to come before the season ends.
Of that, I have no doubt.