Blackburn Rovers 0 West Ham United 1: Ashton provides the spark to warm up Curbishley

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The Independent Online

Nothing makes a manager look more of a tactical genius than a substitution that transforms a game, so Alan Curbishley will be feeling grateful today to Dean Ashton.

The introduction of Ashton at half-time did far more than bring the winning goal at Ewood Park. It reinvented a cagey contest, with defences well on top, as a swashbuckling affair which could have brought several more scores.

"If the ball's going to bounce to anyone in the box, you want it to be him," Curbishley said of the injury-plagued striker feeling his way back after a five-week hamstring lay-off, but still not guaranteed to start against Everton in the Carling Cup quarter-final in midweek.

This is a fixture which traditionally produced generous quantities of goals but there were few signs of that in the opening period, when the first hint was a rising drive from David Dunn that rose a little too high.

That caused less of a stir among the Blackburn faithful than the opportunity to boo their former captain Lucas Neill every time he got the ball, which was conveniently often. The Australian was helping to make the West Ham defence look difficult to break down, with Rovers' only other early strike coming from another long-range effort, this time from Tugay.

At the other end, all Brad Friedel had to do was to cut out a couple of potentially dangerous low crosses and watch slightly relieved as Scott Parker's shot hit his own man, Luis Boa Morte, to save the goalkeeper the trouble.

Parker is clearly getting back to being the sort of influential player he was before his ill-starred stints with Chelsea and Newcastle and the pivotal role he had yesterday suits him admirably. For all his probing, however, his side could not produce a clear-cut opportunity in the first half, although he was not far from the target himself after 34 minutes.

Curbishley brought on Ashton at half-time and within seven minutes the imposing front runner had put the Hammers ahead. George McCartney reached the byline and pulled back a low cross that either Ashton or Carlton Cole could have converted, but which the former Norwich man put away.

This had always looked like a game in need of a goal and, sure enough, it livened up instantly with Robert Green in the West Ham goal making a fine double save from Christopher Samba's header and Andre Ooijer's follow up.

Ashton continued to cause problems, with an outrageous long-distance lob and a gallop down the left and cross into the six-yard box, then Friedel had to save well from Boa Morte's volley.

However, the best chance fell to Roque Santa Cruz, who headed wide from Morten Gamst Pedersen's cross. He almost made up for it in spectacular style, taking Tugay's superb chip on the turn but putting his shot just over the bar.

Ashton missed an open goal late on to leave Blackburn looking for an equaliser right up to the end, with Tugay having another pile-driver brilliantly saved by the excellent Green.

"Roque would be disappointed with his second miss," said the Blackburn manager, Mark Hughes. "But we had numerous opportunities after they scored."

Goal: Ashton (52) 0-1.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2) Friedel; Emerton, Samba, Ooijer, Warnock; Dunn (Reid, 70), Mokoena (Savage, h-t), Tugay, Pedersen (Roberts, 76); McCarthy, Santa Cruz. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Derbyshire.

West Ham United (4-4-2) Green; Neill, Gabbidon, Upson, McCartney; Solano (Spector, 76), Mullins, Parker, Etherington (Ashton, h-t); Cole (Camara, 88), Boa Morte. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Noble.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Blackburn Ooijer; West Ham Cole.

Man of the match: Parker.

Attendance: 20,870.