Benni McCarthy's accuracy from the penalty spot proved the decisive factor at Ewood Park, where Brad Friedel's second spot-kick save in four days ensured Blackburn's new year began with a second successive win and put Sunderland back in the bottom three, thanks to Wigan's point at Liverpool.
The American goalkeeper, whose save from Steve Howard's kick helped his side come from behind to win at Derby on Sunday, was too good for Sunderland's Dean Whitehead last night. McCarthy then had the opportunity to score what proved to be the only goal against Roy Keane's team, who had Dwight Yorke sent off in the second half after picking up two yellow cards against his former club.
The victory was only Blackburn's third in 11 matches yet their prospects of a top-six finish have been rekindled. Their points tally, already better than at the corresponding stage of last season, when they finished 10th, puts them three behind sixth-placed Everton.
"Conditions did not lend themselves to any semblance of good football but when the opportunity came we took ours whereas they didn't," Hughes said. "We've taken seven points from our last three games and, hopefully, that puts us back on track."
Hughes suggested that Sunderland might feel aggrieved to have gone home empty-handed, par-ticularly on the strength of their positive approach in the first half, when they denied Blackburn room to be creative in midfield. But Keane refused to feel sorry for his players. "We had an opportunity but once again we did not take it," he said. "I tend to think you get what you deserve in football and we ended up with nothing, so that's what we deserved.
"We know we are lacking in certain areas but then we've known from the start of the season that we would be stretched. Hopefully, we will be able to strengthen in the transfer window. We have a bid in for one player and I'm hopeful something will transpire in the next couple of days."
Keane denied, however, that the player in question is Blackburn's Robbie Savage, despite Hughes' confirmation that Sunderland had shown interest but were short of his club's valuation of the former Wales international. Savage was not involved last night.
Sunderland might have done better had they not lost the striker Kenwyne Jones with a knee injury at half-time. The former Southampton player, Keane's most expensive outfield signing at 6m, had looked the biggest threat to Blackburn's leaky back four.
The withdrawal of Jones and Blackburn's in-form Roque Santa Cruz, who has a groin injury, did not augur well after a scrappy first half with little to raise the temperature, but in the event the referee, Rob Styles, injected some excitement with his two penalty awards, both involving Blackburn's Christopher Samba. Styles gave Sunderland the opportunity to go ahead seven minutes after the restart, judging the Congolese defender to have jumped into the back of Daryl Murphy.
However, Whitehead's spot-kick lacked both width and power and Friedel made a comfortable save. Samba was outraged by the decision but four minutes later was celebrating as Danny Higginbotham's raised arm blocked his shot in a crowded box.
The visitors clearly felt it was a harsh award but there was no reprieve for them as McCarthy drilled the ball beyond the reach of Craig Gordon to register his first goal in more than two months.
Sunderland hardly deserved to be behind but the perceived injustice had poor consequences for their discipline, in particular that of Yorke, who was punished for two unnecessary fouls in the space of little more than five minutes, leaving his side to contest the final 19 minutes with 10 men.
Goal: McCarthy pen (57) 1-0.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Emerton, Samba, Nelsen, Warnock; Bentley, Tugay, Mokoena, Pedersen; Santa Cruz (Derbyshire, 46; Dunn, 69), McCarthy. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Khizanishvili, Treacy.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Gordon; Whitehead, McShane, Higginbotham, Collins; Yorke; Wallace (Waghorn, 82), Miller, Richardson (Cole, 82), Murphy; Jones (Leadbitter, 46). Substitutes not used: Ward (gk), Kavanagh.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Booked: Blackburn Tugay, Emerton, Samba; Sunderland Higginbotham, Wallace, Yorke, Collins.
Sent off: Yorke (71).
Man of the match: Friedel.
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