Craig Bellamy wore a black armband as a mark of respect for Jimmy Johnstone on Saturday, but it was his performance that paid the most eloquent tribute to the late Celtic winger, with whom he feels an affinity after his loan spell at Parkhead last season. In a game dominated by Robbie Savage's first red card at club level, Bellamy was the difference between the sides, scoring twice and generally tormenting Middlesbrough.
"It was one of Craig's more powerful games," the Rovers manager Mark Hughes said. "There's a lot of explosive players in the Premiership but a lot of them don't have the football intelligence to use it to its best. Craig is an intelligent footballer, allied to phenomenal pace, and it's a heady mix when you get a player like that."
His first goal was all about intelligence, cutting across Chris Riggott from an unexpected angle before hooking a shot into the bottom corner. His second was more about that explosiveness, accelerating on to Morten Gamst Pedersen's flick before rattling a drive past Mark Schwarzer to restore an advantage Blackburn, down to 10 men, had lost six minutes earlier.
Bellamy played a critical role in Blackburn's second as well, nutmegging Franck Queudrue and then being fouled by him to win a free-kick that Pedersen whipped low across the box and in at the far post.
Middlesbrough, despite their two equalisers - the first, from Mark Viduka, the result of confusion between Lucas Neill and Zurab Khizanishvili; the second a drive from Fabio Rochemback after a cut-back from the impressive James Morrison - seemed still to have their heads in the Uefa Cup, and Steve McClaren's frustration was understandable.
"We didn't defend properly from the first whistle to the last," he said. "Every time they came forward, with Bellamy buzzing about, we looked like conceding."
They were handed a lifeline, though, by Savage's red card, shown after 54 minutes for his second yellow in two minutes. "My game is all about tackling and in the tackle on George Boateng I actually won the ball," Savage said of the first booking. "I won it with my left foot, my right foot caught him, but that's the way you tackle."
Well, maybe: most observers would accept both feet were off the ground, and that the challenge deserved a yellow.
His protests about the second booking were more legitimate. "Two minutes later I'm in the middle of the park and Boateng has pinged it from five yards," he said. "When you're closing someone down your arms are at your side. As you turn your arms flail out, and it hit me on the arm. To be fair, the Middlesbrough players did me no favours, running up to the ref."
Nor, perhaps, did the forces of karma, for whatever the rights and wrongs of the specific situation, Savage has walked on the brink so often in the past that a tumble at some stage was inevitable. Fortunately for Blackburn, on this occasion, the performance of his fellow Welshman meant the dismissal was not decisive.
Goals: Bellamy (11) 1-0; Viduka (16) 1-1; Pedersen (28) 2-1; Rochemback (62) 2-2; Bellamy (68) 3-2.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill, Khizanishvili, Nelsen, Gray; Emerton (Mokoena, 59), Savage, Reid, Pedersen; Sinama-Pongolle (Bentley, 72), Bellamy. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Kuqi, Dickov.
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Davies, Riggott (Pogatetz, h-t), Ehiogu, Queudrue; Morrison, Parlour (Yakubu, h-t), Boateng, Rochemback, Johnson (Taylor, h-t); Viduka. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Doriva.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Blackburn Savage, Reid, Neill; Middlesbrough Pogatetz, Boateng, Queudrue. Sent off: Savage (54).
Man of the match: Bellamy.
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