Hughes survives capital effort

Cardiff City 1 - Blackburn Rovers 1
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The Independent Football

Mark Hughes has had more comfortable afternoons in his homeland - when he had his wisdom teeth out for one - but the former Wales manager was a relieved man that his Premiership performers had lived to fight another day, albeit one that his relegation-battlers could probably do without.

He must also feel thankful that he was spared the expected barracking from the Cardiff followers, who chose to acknowledge everything Hughes did for their national team - before his untimely departure in October - with a highly uncharacteristic silence. Praise does not get any more glowing than that for an opposing manager in this part of the world.

Not that Hughes was all smiles, or even any smiles, after 90 minutes in which Blackburn were often outclassed by the Championship strugglers after seeing their early lead wiped out. Indeed, it was a good job they started so brightly, because from the end of the first quarter onwards there was only one team with the wit and gumption to settle this tie. "We were quite comfortable early on but fair play to Cardiff they put us under pressure after that," admitted Hughes, who bore the look of a man who had survived a potential shock.

And, in hindsight, it might yet seem no mean feat as the last two top-flight teams to strut into Ninian Park in the FA Cup both limped back over the Severn with the bitter ring of defeat, as well as the odd, choicer insult, sounding in their ears. Manchester City, vanquished in 1994, could have let Leeds know just what they were in for, although even then the team leading the Premiership in January 2002 might still not have been quite prepared for the torrent of passion, not to mention downright aggression, awaiting them.

Unsurprisingly, Hughes was operating under no such misapprehension of the unique hostility this battered old stadium can foster. There may be little over a mile between them, but Ninian Park in January is as far removed as you can get from the Millennium Stadium in May. Hughes's directive, no doubt, was for Blackburn to take the sting out the situation as quickly as possible and his men were true to his word when the Norwegian international Morten Gamst Pedersen strolled on to David Thompson's incisive through ball in the fifth minute, before lofting it over Tony Warner. "They could have got a bus through there," said the City manager, Lennie Lawrence. The rest of Cardiff fell silent. Or almost.

There was still their usual anti-English repertoire to go through, until a legitimate justification for the foul-mouthed arrived in the 29th minute when an unseemly row between Dominic Matteo and Richard Langley spilled over into something much more ugly as a series of scuffles broke out between the two sides. "Incidents like that can help to get the adrenalin going and make you roll up your sleeves," said the Cardiff striker Alan Lee. "So it certainly helped us to get back into the game."

It certainly helped Lee get into the game as it was his arching header off a Graham Kavanagh cross six minutes later that levelled the match. "How he got that in I'll never know," said Lawrence. But Brad Friedel knew, the ball having deflected off the crossbar on to the hapless American's back and in.

The sting was well and truly back, with Jobi McAnuff in particular causing havoc on the left flank, and Hughes was a relieved manager to be heading in all square after his former Wales defender Daniel Gabbidon failed by a matter of centimetres to turn in a Kavanagh free-kick with time running down. But his respite was only as long as the break, with Cardiff tearing into their supposed superiors as soon as the referee whistled the restart.

Junichi Inamoto, on loan from West Brom, called on all the undoubted talent of Friedel to turn away the Japan international's 25-yard piledriver in the 53rd minute, and with the inspirational qualities of Barry Ferguson lost after the captain hobbled off, Blackburn looked short of both the spirit and the know-how to cope with this burgeoning threat.

The introduction of Paul Gallagher for the ineffective Jon Stead on the hour redressed the balance somewhat and it was the Scottish substitute's cross in the 64th minute that was turned in by Thompson, but the goal was disallowed for Paul Dickov's push on Warner. Dickov served further notice of Blackburn's ever-present danger two minutes later when his run and shot was denied once more by the impressive Warner, but Kavanagh's 30-yard screamer in the 74th minute, that fizzed over with Friedel beaten, ensured the momentum remained with the home side in a rumbustious ending. "We hounded them," said Lee. So they did. But not every underdog has its day.