Blackburn Rovers 1 Nancy 0: Neill builds bridges with table-topping strike for Rovers

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The Independent Football

Blackburn Rovers fans have been questioning Lucas Neill's commitment to the cause, but they cannot question his sense of timing.

Three minutes of stoppage time had almost expired when the defender, whose Ewood Park future remains in doubt, scored the goal that takes his club into the Uefa Cup's last 32 as group winners.

It was the perfect retort to detractors who booed him during Saturday's defeat against Newcastle United over his stalled contract talks. He could not resist mockingly cupping his ear in their direction as he ran back following his first goal of the season.

Mark Hughes had a contretemps of his own when clashing with his Nancy counterpart. But more significant than any spats is the victory that ensures Blackburn will avoid any of the Champions' League drop-outs in tomorrow's draw in Geneva.

They were often second best and, welcome a sanctuary though this tournament has proved in their troubled season, they could hardly have complained had the Frenchmen held them off at the head of the group.

Hughes was happy with this fresh foothold amid a debilitating run of six defeats in eight Premiership games, and said: "It was a great finish and I'm pleased at Lucas. He played well and didn't allow certain individuals to affect his performance."

With both teams already through, Hughes made six changes. Matt Derbyshire was given his first senior start and should have scored early on when expertly put clear by Neill, only for the goalkeeper Johan Lapeyre to save well. Nancy, seventh in Ligue 1, were sprightly opponents. Frédéric Biancalani brought a useful save from Brad Friedel while Neill was often a central figure.

He moved to centre-half to replace Andy Todd and escaped following an untidy penalty-area challenge on Issiar Dia that harshly earned the striker a booking for diving.

Neill then allowed the dangerous Carlos Kim to evade him and stride away for a measured shot that hit the post just before the break. A goal-line clearance from Pascal Berenguer continued the Australian's eventful night and two imaginative free-kicks from Benjamin Gavanon, the second from just inside Blackburn's half, kept Friedel busy.

Lapeyre was little troubled despite a brilliant tip over from David Bentley's 25-yarder but was let down when Neill had an ocean of room to chest down Bentley's cross and drive home a sweet right-foot shot from the edge of the area.

The Nancy coach Pablo Correa was fuming at two rejected penalty appeals and refused a handshake at the end after claiming he had been insulted during the game.

"I told him to sit down and be quiet," Hughes smiled. "There may have been some industrial language but he shouldn't be too precious."

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill (Nolan, 29), Todd, Ooijer, McEveley; Bentley, Savage, Mokoena, Peter (Pedersen, 67); Gallagher (McCarthy, 67), Derbyshire. Substitutes not used: Brown, Tugay, Nonda, Gray.

AS Nancy (3-4-3): Lapeyre; Lecluse, Diakhate, Puygrenier; Chretien, Gavanon, Luiz, Berenguer; Biancalani (Sauget, 73), Kim (Curbelo, 76), Dia (N'Guemo, 64). Substitutes not used: Sorin, Hamdani, Keita, Brison.

Referee: G Lehner (Austria).