Harford banks on his new flexible friends

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The Independent Online
Blackburn Rovers headed for the Arctic Circle yesterday, fortified by the type of inner warmth only winning can bring. The tonic is timely; tonight they meet the Norwegian champions, Rosenberg Trondheim, in a match which neither side can afford to lose.

A week ago few would have given Rovers much hope. But two victories in four days have restored confidence after a run of five defeats and a draw.

It is not just the wins, but the nature of them, that has lifted the gloom. Rovers defeated a vibrant Swindon side having been two down away from home, then overwhelmed Coventry 5-1 on Saturday. Equally significant was their flexibility of approach. Rovers' 4-4-2 may have won them last year's title but it was becoming easy to stifle. Ray Harford, the Rovers manager, has responded by introducing a three or five-man defence with a sweeper and wing-backs.

"They have enjoyed playing it," Harford said. "There has been a lightening of spirit. The Swindon win was particularly uplifting - if we had stuck to the old system and gone two down I do not know if we could have come back."

However, there will be one change, with a significance beyond Rovers' Champions League ambitions. With Graeme Le Saux injured a defensive re-shuffle is required, and Chris Sutton will assume the sweeper's role. He did not train last night, but Blackburn expect him to be fit to play.

The move will be closely watched by England. While there are a number of emerging strikers with a better eye for goal than Sutton, few young defenders are as comfortable on the ball. "I am happy to play there for the sake of the team, but I see myself as a forward," he said. "I do not want to be known as a Jack of all trades". Given the example of Paul Warhurst, whose versatility as much as his injuries has prevented him winning a regular place, one can see Sutton's point.

His international chances would be better served concentrating on defence, but he added, perhaps with a look at the likes of Ruud Gullit: "It is easier to move back in 10 years' time than move forward."

Warhurst, like Kevin Gallacher, Jason Wilcox and Le Saux, is unavailable tonight, although, unlike Kenny Dalglish, some have travelled with the team - Dalglish may arrive today. Lee Makel is expected to win the final midfield place ahead of Stuart Ripley.

Like Blackburn, the Norwegians also lost their first game, away to Legia Warsaw, but will provide stern opposition at home - only Sampdoria have won here in European competition this decade. They are on course for their fourth domestic title in succession and have scored in their last 66 matches.

They play with two wingers and a central striker - Harald Brattbakk - who doubles as the club accountant. The left winger, `Mini' Jakobsen, has more than 50 Norwegian caps and does a Peter Beagrie style somersault whenever he scores - which is rather more often than the Manchester City winger. On the right is 18-year-old Steffan Iversen, the son of Norway's record goalscorer, Odd Iversen, the inspiration behind Rosenberg's rise in the Sixties. Iversen is backed by the strong-running Karl-Petter Loken, an engineering graduate.

"They are," Harford said, "very rigid. They are strong, well-balanced, with some good players", which is just how Blackburn were described a week ago. Tonight we will discover whether they have left their evolution too late, or redefined themselves just in time.

n Henning Berg has escaped a one-match suspension after the referee Gary Willard admitted he was wrong to send off the Rovers defender at Liverpool. Berg can now play at Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Blackburn Rovers (probable): Flowers; Pearce, Sutton, Hendry; Berg, Sherwood, Makel, Batty, Kenna; Shearer, Newell.

Rosenberg (probable): Jamtfall; Kvarme, Bragstad, Hoftun, Stensaas; Loken, Strand, Skammelsrud; Iversen, Jakobsen, Brattbakk.

Referee: H Benko (Austria).