Cole helps Blackburn to seize advantage

Sheffield Wednesday 1 Blackburn Rovers 2
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The Independent Football

For Andy Cole, exchanging Manchester United for Blackburn entailed swapping the Champions' League for the more homely delights of the League Cup, a competition he has not graced for nearly five years.

Nevertheless, the man who has scored more European goals for United than anyone else has not lost his capacity to prey on unwary defences. Cole's first goal since his move to Ewood Park ultimately proved the difference between Blackburn and a Sheffield Wednesday side which, starved of resources and facing relegation to the Second Division, rose superbly to the occasion of a Worthington Cup semi-final.

Having gone into the interval two goals adrift, Terry Yorath, who has faced down a sustained campaign for his dismissal, instead oversaw a fightback which gave Sheffield Wednesday some hope for the second leg and, with better finishing, ought to have secured a draw.

"You always have negative thoughts in these situations, especially after the last defeat here [a 5-0 thrashing by Norwich]," reflected the Wednesday manager. "Maybe Hillsborough is too big for them but they showed real commitment.

"We proved we are capable of giving them a good game," he added. "I think we had two sloppy goals against us. We got ourselves back in the game and I thought our players worked really hard. I didn't think we deserved to be two down.

"But it [the Wednesday performance] brings a little bit of pride back to the players, the club and the supporters."

As he trudged down the tunnel, Yorath must have wondered what might have been had Paul McLaren's point-blank header not been turned over the bar in the opening seconds of the tie. His side had begun at a furious, unsustainable, tempo and almost immediately Pablo Bonvin worked his way down the Blackburn right and sent over the kind of cross McLaren ought to have buried.

Wednesday were, however, aided by Graeme Souness's decision not to start with a regular striker in support of Cole but to use a midfielder, Damien Duff, who tended to drift out to either wing at critical moments. After 36 minutes, the Blackburn manager rectified the situation by bringing on Mark Hughes, who played for Manchester United against Wednesday in the 1991 League Cup final, the last time a team from outside the top-flight won a major trophy. By then, Blackburn were already in front.

Duff found himself in his favourite position, on the left, when he aimed a cross for Cole which instead fell straight to Craig Hignett on the edge of the six-yard box. On Saturday, Hignett had kept Blackburn in the FA Cup with a late equaliser at Barnsley and now a fierce drive put his club a step nearer their first domestic final since 1960.

Six minutes before the interval, Duff again exposed Sheffield Wednesday's dangerous tactics of defending high up the pitch. A low cross produced the kind of goal which Cole had almost made his trademark ­ using his pace in the area to lose his marker he slid the ball home. It was virtually his only chance of the night.

"It is the sort of goal we have not been scoring," Souness remarked. "His movement is very different to what we have had before. He is a predator who plays with his head, looking to outmanoeuvre his opponent. He is always one step ahead of the defender."

It was a goal that ought to have made the remaining 135 minutes of this tie a formality until in a remarkably similar move, eight minutes after the restart, Phil O'Donnell drove the ball across the face of a floundering Rovers defence and Efan Ekoku clipped past Brad Friedel to send Hillsborough ablaze with hope.

Wednesday, fuelled by the fervour pouring from the stands, raised themselves for a sustained assault on a Blackburn defence which has now kept one clean sheet in eight games. Had Bonvin shown rather more calmness when twice presented with clear chances, Sheffield Wednesday might have equalised or, remarkably, even gone ahead.

The Argentinian snatched at the first eight yards out and, moments later, presented with a clear run on goal, he produced a finish unworthy of the move. Since Yorath substituted him immediately afterwards, Bonvin was not to have a third opportunity.

The Yorkshire pressure did not slacken and another of Yorath's substitutions, Andy Hinchcliffe, almost drew the sides level when Ekoku met his teasing free-kick, curled in from the right, with a header that Friedel tipped past the post. Blackburn, who would have gone in at half time planning to strangle this tie at birth, were instead harried and harassed every step of the way, grateful to bring any kind of a lead back to Ewood Park.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Pressman; Geary, Westwood, Bromby (Morrison, 84), O'Donnell (Hinchcliffe, 66); Hamshaw, Haslam, McLaren, Quinn; Bonvin (Crane, 66), Ekoku. Substitutes not used: Maddix, Stringer (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Curtis, Taylor, Short, Bjornebye; Hignett (Gillespie, 72), Tugay, Dunn, Mahon (Hughes, 36); Duff, Cole. Substitutes not used: Johansson, Jansen, Kelly (gk).

Referee: A D'Urso (Billericay).

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