Goals by Ryan Nelsen have been scarce as hens' teeth since he pitched up in Lancashire four years ago, but the central defender from New Zealand picked the ideal moment to get off the mark. With an hour played in yesterday's derby, Blackburn were clinging to a 1-0 lead against a dangerous Wigan side when Nelsen scored for the first time in 141 appearances.
The captain's duck-breaker was not a pretty goal, but one which, according to Sam Allardyce, put Premier League survival within reach. "Ryan's goal helped take the pressure off us, though we still had to do some heroic defending," the Blackburn manager said. "We're not safe yet, but we're nearly there. I think safety is just one win away." His Wigan counterpart, Steve Bruce, bemoaned his team's failure to defend set-pieces, from which both goals originated, and conceded that Chris Samba, the 6ft 4in defender used in attack by Allardyce, had proved "a real handful".
Wigan were the team that effectively ended Paul Ince's reign as Blackburn manager in December, his P45 issued after their 3-0 win. Blackburn's progress under Allardyce has been marked – they have now picked up 24 points from 17 games, compared with 13 from the same number of matches under Ince – but not spectacular enough to compensate for a poor start.
They opened falteringly here and, after Wigan's Antonio Valencia had torn past Stephen Warnock on three minutes, were relieved to see the Ecuadorian's shot come off the underside of the bar. Wigan played relaxed, fluid football befitting a side clear of relegation. Blackburn, given Samba's physicality, looked for route one.
Samba, as he proved when he inspired an improbable victory over Tottenham, is willing, brave and, of course, useful in the air. True, he does not think or move like a forward, but he certainly distracts defenders and goalkeepers, as he demonstrated when Blackburn took the lead moments before half-time.
Morten Gamst Pedersen's delivery into the six-yard area should have been easy pickings for a keeper of Chris Kirkland's calibre. Samba's leap, however, disconcerted him and McCarthy took advantage to score his 12th goal of the season with a back-header.
Nelsen's collector's item came on the hour. This time McCarthy turned provider, swinging in a free-kick from the left wing to which Nelsen, possibly stealing back from an offside position, also applied a back-header. There was still hard work for Blackburn to do; in the space of a few seconds, Paul Robinson denied Emmerson Boyce with a foot and Valencia with an acrobatic parry, while David Dunn headed off the line from Paul Scharner.
Robinson still defied Wigan, reinforced by the returning Amr Zaki, as a carnival atmosphere gripped Ewood Park. A repeat performance in either of their final home games against Portsmouth and West Bromwich will complete the salvage operation.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Robinson; Ooijer, Nelsen, Givet, Warnock; Diouf, Tugay (Dunn, 64), Grella (Andrews, 78), Pedersen; McCarthy (Villanueva, 81), Samba. Substitutes not used: Bunn (gk), Khizanhisvili, Olsson, Doran, Andrews.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Boyce, Bramble, Scharner, Bramble, Figueroa (De Ridder, 77); Valencia, Cattermole, Watson (Kapo, 78), N'Zogbia; Rodallega, Mido (Zaki, h-t). Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Edman, Brown, Koumas.
Referee: P Walton (Northants).
Man of the match: Robinson.
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