Hughes finds cold comfort in draw

Blackburn Rovers 0 - Everton 0
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The Independent Online

It was the game before Christmas and in the penalty area nothing stirred, which rather suited both teams.

It was the game before Christmas and in the penalty area nothing stirred, which rather suited both teams.

Blackburn will at least spend Christmas above the relegation area. And although Everton produced one of their deadest performances of the season, their grand strategy - win at Goodison Park and pick up points elsewhere - remained intact. The sweatless destruction of Norwich may have increased Chelsea's advantage to six points but Everton's manager, David Moyes, greeted the news like the leader of the Liberal Democrats being told that the polls suggested they were a few seats short of forming the next government. Just to be considered contenders as 2004 draws to its close is enough.

Although Blackburn deserved rather more than a draw, they must still be considered relegation candidates. Under Mark Hughes they are crawling forward at exactly a point a game, still weighed down by the same inability to force victories at Ewood Park that last season threatened to drag Graeme Souness's side to the brink. To calm the nerves, Blackburn require a string of maybe three wins, something that, despite Saturday's humiliation at White Hart Lane, you imagine Harry Redknapp might tease out of Southampton.

Souness will find that not much has changed when he returns to Blackburn on Boxing Day with Newcastle, although Hughes argued he would see a fitter squad than the one he abandoned in September. "To get that level of performance you need in the Premiership, I felt we had to become fitter," Hughes reflected. "We had to be more demanding of each other and now the training is a lot more vocal. I felt it had to be if we were going to compete."

The implication that the players were not properly fit under his charge will enrage Souness, although Blackburn are likely to compete rather better against Newcastle than they did when the two teams met at St James' Park immediately after his resignation. These days they are at least competent.

Everton have not risen to a Champions' League place without some luck. On Saturday Tony Hibbert performed to the very edge of his ability. The clearance off the line in the fourth minute was just the start of his afternoon. Blackburn dominated the midfield but for 88 minutes, until Brett Emerton struck the foot of the post in stoppage time, that was as close as they came. Of the seven corners they forced only one threatened to cause any problems, the ball falling at the feet of Nils-Eric Johansson, who looked bewildered by what to do next.

Hughes again regretted the lack of quality in his attack. "Sometimes we come into the dressing-room shaking our heads at the position we find ourselves in," he said. Those who left Ewood Park to hear that the other six Premiership fixtures had produced 25 goals would have shaken their own heads at how they managed to attend quite so sterile a game.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill, Short (Johansson, 21), Todd, Matteo; Emerton, B Ferguson, Flitcroft, Reid; Bothroyd (Gallacher, 83), Dickov. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Stead, Pedersen.

Everton (4-5-1): Martyn; Hibbert, Weir, Stubbs, Pistone; Osman (McFadden, 63), Gravesen, Carsley, Cahill (D Ferguson, 63), Kilbane; Bent (Watson, 87). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Yobo.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Booked: Blackburn Rovers: Todd. Everton: Hibbert, Carsley.

Man of the match: Hibbert.

Attendance: 25,191.

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