Rovers' travails are not in vain

Guy Hodgson asks why Blackburn took so long finding their form in Europe
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The Independent Online
At Ewood Park, the air of frustration was as palpable as the drop in temperature. After five shambolic games in the Champions' League, why did Blackburn Rovers suddenly find their form when it was too late to qualify for the knock-out stages?

With a weakened team, Blackburn beat Rosenborg 4-1 and looked less like a side who were naive and technically ill-equipped to face the best of Europe and more like unfortunates who happened to run into bad luck, a bad run of injuries and bad form at the wrong time. The words "if only" echoed round the ground like a prayer.

In retrospect, for all their tactical failings - and width denied them by Jason Wilcox's injury - the main reason Blackburn failed to qualify for the knockout phase lay in their sequence of matches. Facing the best side in Group B, Spartak Moscow, handicapped a start that was compounded by having to visit their two rivals for the runners-up position in their next two matches.

Had they gone to Moscow first and then met Rosenborg and Legia Warsaw at home, the four points they accrued from those fixtures in less favourable circumstances would have left them needing only three more to qualify. In an atmosphere of hope rather than despair, they would probably have got them.

Of course the pressure was off when they met Rosenborg, yet it was revealing what they were capable of against opponents who had to attack. Suddenly Rovers, impotent hitherto, had space that manifested into a hat-trick for Mike Newell and a penalty for Alan Shearer. Newell, honestly, said his goals, scored in nine minutes, masked a performance that was not as emphatic as the scoreline suggests, but Blackburn had eight players unavailable.

"It's been an experience," Ray Harford, their manager, said of the campaign. "Maybe we didn't enjoy it, but that's part of the learning process. I think everyone is better for having played in Europe."

The next thing in Harford's sights will be qualifying for Europe to put his revised thinking into practice. Given the signs of improvement at Ewood Park, it should not be beyond them.

n Blackburn's poor disciplinary record in the Champions' League has cost England an extra place in European competition next season. The dismissals of Colin Hendry and Paul Warhurst plus the punch-up between Graeme Le Saux and David Batty means that England are unlikely to finish in the top three of the Fair Play ratings, which brings an extra Uefa Cup qualifier.

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