Wigan Athletic 5 Blackburn Rovers 3: Heskey loss takes gloss off Bent's revival

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The Independent Online

Marcus Bent's hat-trick came as no surprise to Steve Bruce, who tried to sign the 29-year-old striker three times when he was manager at Birmingham City. Yet much as he appreciated the quality of Bent's finishing as Wigan Athletic secured their first Premier League win for three and a half months, Bruce feared that another injury to Emile Heskey could be a serious impediment to his new team's attempt to break out of the bottom three.

Heskey, whose 10-week absence with a broken metatarsal coincided with Wigan's run of eight consecutive defeats, has yet to complete a match since his return. But while the niggles that caused him to be substituted in his first two comeback starts were minor, Saturday's damaged ankle looks more serious.

Anticipating another lengthy lay-off, Bruce is clearly concerned. "We are not going to pre-judge anything until we have had the scans but he has gone over badly on the ankle and I'd be surprised if it [his absence] was less than a couple of weeks," he said.

"At this time of year a couple of weeks covers a lot of games and he is such an important player to us, so it is a big blow. Marcus had a good game today but what I really wanted was to have both him and Emile going well in tandem, because that is when we are a threat."

With Bruce inclined to have his players launch rapid, direct attacks, a physical striker who can retain possession until support arrives is a valuable asset and Heskey clearly has that ability.

It was more than coincidence, perhaps, that once Heskey had been taken off on a stretcher, Blackburn staged their recovery. Three down to goals by Bent, Denny Landzaat and Paul Scharner within 37 minutes, during which time Benni McCarthy failed to score from a penalty, they found a talisman of their own in Roque Santa Cruz, who is unlikely ever again to hit such an impressive hat-trick in a losing cause, scoring from distance and close range and with his head in a 16-minute blitz.

But it was then that Bent, facing one of his nine former clubs, came into his own, converting crosses from Antonio Valencia and then Julius Aghahowa as Blackburn counted the cost of having Brett Emerton sent off for two yellow cards.

Currently on a season's loan from Charlton, Bent would be keen to stay if Wigan avoid the drop, although Bruce does not deny that the task is a tall one.

"This result keeps us in the pack whereas a defeat would have seen us five or six points adrift," he said. "But I reckon you need to win 10 games in a season to feel safe and so far we have won three."

Faced with an "edgy" dressing room after Santa Cruz's opening strike in first-half stoppage time had exposed Wigan's fragile confidence, Bruce had to draw on his experience of Birmingham's highs and lows to calm brittle nerves and two more goals conceded so quickly left him wondering if his team would collapse before his eyes.

"You couldn't know which way it was going to go but they showed character to get back in front and maybe this will make them believe in themselves more because until the last 10 seconds of the first half it was a complete performance," he said.

If Heskey's injury comes at the wrong moment, given that there is a new England coach in place, then Blackburn's loss of form is equally untimely, with a Carling Cup quarter-final against Arsenal looming tomorrow evening, although Arsne Wenger's line-up will be much changed from the side that faced Chelsea yesterday.

The manager, Mark Hughes, is at a loss to explain the run of one win in seven that has set back his hopes of a top-six finish, although the simultaneous re-introduction of Steven Reid and Robbie Savage in midfield after long absences cannot have helped. Savage had been missing for three months, Reid for almost 16. "We seem to be playing well for half a game at a time," Savage said. "We've got to get back to playing well for 90 minutes. We don't want our season to fizzle out."

Goals: Landzaat (10) 1-0; Bent (12) 2-0; Scharner (37) 3-0; Santa Cruz (45) 3-1; Santa Cruz (50) 3-2; Santa Cruz (61) 3-3;

Bent (66) 4-3; Bent (81) 5-3.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Boyce, Scharner, Bramble, Kilbane; Valencia, Landzaat, M Brown, Taylor (Olembe, 89); Bent, Heskey (Aghahowa, 40; Granqvist 90). Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Koumas.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Emerton, Samba, Nelsen, Warnock; Bentley, Savage, Reid, Pedersen; Santa Cruz (Dunn, 90), McCarthy (Derbyshire, 74). Substitutes not used: J Brown (gk), Mokoena, Olsson.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).

Booked: Wigan Heskey, Taylor, Aghahowa, Brown; Blackburn Samba, Emerton, Warnock, Savage.

Sent off: Blackburn Emerton (57).

Man of the match: Bent.

Attendance: 16,489.

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