Blackburn Rovers 5
Aston Villa 0
The most remarkable aspect of Blackburn's rehabilitation under Roy Hodgson is not how much has changed but how much remains the same. Of Saturday's side, only Stephane Henchoz does not pre-date his coach at Ewood Park. The remainder are the same players who spent much of last season under dire threat of relegation.
Another fact, just as significant, is that seven of those players were first-team regulars three years ago, when Blackburn won the championship. Whatever knowledge Hodgson had of the English game when he arrived from Internazionale last summer, it will have included that, at the very least. The temptation to bring about wholesale change, therefore, was one he could resist.
"I was happy to work with the players that were here," he said on Saturday, glowing in the reflected glory of Blackburn's superb demolition of a poorly Aston Villa. "I had no preconceived ideas. I knew something about some of them - Kevin Gallacher, for example, had played for Scotland against Switzerland. Of others, such as Chris Sutton, I knew very little. But I was happy to see what they could do."
The success achieved so far through this approach only reinforces the view that Hodgson is an exceptional manager in the fullest sense, rather than one who is merely handy with a cheque- book. He has restored the solid efficiency that was Blackburn's hallmark when Kenny Dalglish guided them to the title and to it added the freedom to play with imagination, which made Saturday's display - for everyone but Villa's disillusioned followers - a pleasure to watch.
Gallacher, who celebrated the fifth hat-trick of his career, has reaped the full benefit. "He [Hodgson] has been very fair," the striker said. "You expect things to happen when someone new comes in and when he signed Martin Dahlin you knew you would have to do well to be in the side. "But Martin was two weeks behind in terms of preparation and Chris Sutton and I were scoring for fun in pre-season friendlies. He stuck with us and the partnership developed from there."
Moreover, they are under orders, Gallacher confirms, to give the Ewood crowd full value for money. "The way we are coached is not much different than under Dalglish," he said, "but he [Hodgson] wants more movement and encourages us to be inventive."
These were the features on Saturday, when Tim Sherwood controlled a fluid midfield and revealed moments of technical brilliance, not least with the back-heel that set up the first of Gallacher's three. The Scot's second goal was a clever one, too: a neat flick to send Steve Staunton off balance, followed by a deft finish with the outside of the foot.
His third, like Sherwood's opener, mocked Villa's dreadful marking at corners; Stuart Ripley added Blackburn's fifth, set up by the unselfish Sutton, who failed to add to the hat-trick he scored in Blackburn's 4- 0 win at Villa in August, but earned his manager's praise for a performance "without an error." He could said the same about several.
It is a long time since Brian Little could comment in such terms about any of his players, whose underachievement has pushed Villa into the bottom half of the table in a season that will have only Europe to prop it up should they fail to overcome West Bromwich Albion in the Cup next weekend.
They have too many individuals of questionable commitment, of which Stan Collymore is only one. To his name, add Savo Milosevic and Sasa Curcic, even Dwight Yorke and Gareth Southgate, all of whom have admitted they might need to go elsewhere to fulfil personal ambitions. Staunton, meanwhile, appears merely to be biding his time before leaving on a lucrative free transfer in the summer.
Saturday's miserable effort, greeted with loudly voiced displeasure by Villa's travelling supporters, so stunned Little that he refused to discuss it afterwards. Like Hodgson, he is a man inclined to resist major change. In his case, however, it is a policy that no longer seems appropriate.
Goals: Sherwood (21) 1-0; Gallacher (29) 2-0; Gallacher (54) 3-0; Gallacher (68) 4-0; Ripley (81) 5-0.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Kenna, Henchoz, Hendry, Wilcox; Ripley, Sherwood, Flitcroft (Croft, 72), Duff; Gallacher (McKinlay, 72), Sutton. Substitutes not used: Pedersen, Beattie, Fettis (gk).
Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Staunton, Grayson; Nelson, Draper, Taylor, Wright; Yorke; Milosevic, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Charles, Joachim, Hendrie, Hughes, Oakes (gk).
Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).
Booked: Blackburn: Henchoz. Aston Villa: Taylor.
Man of the match: Gallacher.
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