A top-of-the-table encounter that more than made up in excitement for anything it might have lacked in promised technical excellence was at least decided by a goal of rare quality, from one of the least expected sources.
Gary Croft, a full-back signed from Grimsby two seasons ago and given a first-team chance because of Graeme Le Saux's move to Chelsea, scored his first senior goal for Blackburn with a magnificent left-footed shot from the angle of the penalty area after only 10 minutes.
The irony of him succeeding where bigger names and more specialist practitioners all failed grew steadily over the course of the game, especially when Chelsea, with Gianfranco Zola, the prime culprit, missed five golden opportunities on either side of half-time.
A Chelsea team reshuffled sufficiently to be unrecognisable as the one that beat Southampton in the Coca-Cola Cup in midweek had started slowly and Croft's goal caught them cold. Stuart Ripley's free-kick was only headed out as far as the defender lurking just outside the area and his shot tore into the roof of the net.
A defence lacking the normally commanding presence of Colin Hendry coped well with anything Chelsea could produce until 10 minutes before the break when they hit the patch that could have won them the match. The first glimpse of the distinctive, incisive play which they are capable saw Roberto Di Matteo backheel to Dennis Wise, whose well-hit shot was saved expertly by the previously under-employed Tim Flowers.
The goalkeeper needed Jeff Kenna's help to escape the next threat, the defender getting back to head clear after the ball had spooned up over him. The best chance of all fell to Zola immediately before the interval when he was left with a clear header at close range by Wise's cross but contrived to put it wide of the post. Chelsea's most dangerous phase ended when Flowers saved at Dan Petrescu's feet.
Croft, a 50-1 shot for the first goalscorer, said that he had not even seen his shot find the net. "I knew that I had got a good strike on the ball, but then I lost sight of it and had to see the reaction of our players before I knew I'd scored. I don't think too many people backed me."
Having survived Chelsea's flurry, Blackburn grew in confidence as the game went on. When Chelsea brought on the striker Tore Andre Flo in search of an equaliser, the visitors looked stretched at the back and could have conceded further goals. Ed de Goey saved three times from Chris Sutton in six minutes before going upfield himself as a desperate measure in the last few minutes.
"They missed chances, but so did we," said Roy Hodgson, justifiably satisfied with regaining second place in the table. "I thought we were fortunate to be ahead at half-time. But in the second half we improved sufficiently that we don't have to feel embarrassed about winning it. We were closer to a second goal than they were to equalising."
The best news for Hodgson was that his side came out on top against one of their rivals in the upper echelons of the table. There would, he remarked, be plenty of those matches before the end of the season, starting with the visit to Manchester United next weekend.Reuse content