Rovers managed to quell doubters and put themselves five points clear of 7th place with a nervy, yet well-deserved 2-1 victory over former manager Paul Ince’s struggling Reading side.
After Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side suffered their first loss in 11 games, in the Friday night clash at the bet365 stadium, where Stoke City ran out 3-2 winners, the Dane made two changes as John Buckley dropped out after being ruled out for the season with a knee injury, as Tyler Morton replaced him. The second swap saw Ben Brereton Díaz replace Tyrhys Dolan, who dropped to the bench.
With Ewood Park rocking due to a boost in attendance, courtesy of the club’s £10 offer in all areas of the ground, it was Reading who got the ball rolling, as they were looking to start a positive run of their own, after failing to win in their last three.
Less than 120 seconds had passed before the increased attendance in the home end were celebrating taking the lead, as Ben Brereton Díaz netted his first goal at Ewood Park, since the 1-0 win over Huddersfield Town in November. Rovers won the ball back on the edge of their own box as their clearance bounced back to Sam Gallagher, who picked out Sorba Thomas with a fine first-time pass. The Huddersfield Town loanee, who had Sammie Szmodics and the Chilean up with him, managed to pick out the latter, courtesy of a deflection. The attacker wasted no time as all as he chested the ball down to earn control of the ball, before dispatching a low side-footed effort from outside the box, into the bottom right-hand corner, past Joe Lumley, to give the Blues the early 1-0 advantage.
Chelsea loanee, Cesare Casadei, was the Royal’s main attacking threat after 23 minutes, as he looked to restore parity with a long-range effort from outside the area, but Aynsley Pears got down quickly to keep his clean-sheet intact.
Joe Rankin-Costello became the first player to be booked by referee Darren Bond, after 28 minutes, following a clash with veteran goalscorer, Shane Long.
Rovers continued to pile bodies forward in the 34th minute, as they controlled the affair whilst looking to double their lead. Sorba Thomas’ in-swinging cross was parried away by Joe Lumley, only as far as Sammie Szmodics, whose follow-up attempt was blocked and cleared by the Royals defence.
The clearance was recycled by Rovers who continued their pressure, as Thomas popped up on the right-hand side and looked to deliver another delivery into the box which Sam Gallagher this time, connected with, yet the attacker’s nod cleared the crossbar.
Casadei again looked to try and beat Pears from distance in the 37th minute, as the Italian wound up an effort as the goalie scrambled across and fumbled the shot, before holding onto the loose ball.
From the save, Rovers got themselves on the front foot again as Joe Rankin-Costello found Gallagher, who again forced Joe Lumley into action with a save.
In the 40th minute, Rovers nearly doubled their advantage after Lumley nearly gifted the Blues a second. As the goalkeeper looked to clear his lines, Szmodics charged down the shot-stopper with the ball ricocheting off the midfielder and bouncing back off the post, into the palms of the goalie, who breathed a sigh of relief.
Rankin-Costello nearly turned provider for his defensive partner, Hayden Carter, but the centre-back’s 44th minute half-volley dropped onto the roof of the net.
As the 45th minute ticked over on the clock, Darren Bond called time on an eventful first-half after neither side could take advantage of one minute of time that was added onto the end of the first period.
Jon Dahl Tomasson’s delight would have been evident at the break as he welcomed his side back into the dressing room. His side had executed his gameplan perfectly to take the lead and the boss would have been full of praise for his players after they took an early lead.
Paul Ince’s reaction would have been the opposite, as the former Rovers gaffer would have been frustrated that his side had effectively started the game, a goal down. He would have been looking for a reaction in the second period to try and halt their poor run of form.
After the sides returned to the field for the second-half, it was Szmodics who restarted the game, as Rovers looked to try and push on and continue their first-half dominance in order to broaden the gap between the two sides.
Ten minutes into the second period and Rovers created the second 45’s first chance. Rankin-Costello again delivered the ball into the box as Brereton Díaz brought the ball down on his chest and volleyed towards goal, but Lumley produced a fine save.
Lumley was again called into action in the 62nd minute, as Sorba Thomas intercepted the ball in midfield and drove towards goal before releasing an effort that Lumley palmed to safety.
Rovers again stormed forwards from the Reading clearance after Lumley’s save, but Gallagher’s eventual strike was deflected over the crossbar. As the home side continued to pile the pressure from the corner in the 64th minute, Lumley was again called upon to keep the score down as Thomas and Gallagher forced saves from the Middlesbrough loanee.
Aynsley Pears, who had a quiet game in the main, was then thrust into action after Shane Long’s header looked goal-bound, but the shot-stopper pulled off a fantastic acrobatic save to keep his side ahead.
Pears failed to make it two saves from two as Cesare Casadei managed to finally beat Pears at the third attempt in the 68th minute, with a long-ranged effort. Reading managed to work a fine passage of play as the Rovers defence were dragged out of position before the Italian let fly from range. The power of the low drive proved enough to get past Pears as the ball squirmed underneath the goalie as parity was restored between the two sides at 1-1 to end Reading’s finest passage of the game.
Just before the restart, Jon Dahl Tomasson reacted to conceding by making a double change as Ryan Hedges and Tyrhys Dolan replaced Sorba Thomas and Ben Brereton Díaz, in the 69th minute.
Rovers continued to push forward as they regained control of the game, despite being pegged back. Szmodics, in the 72nd minute, picked out Gallagher from wide with a cross, but the attacker’s luck wasn’t on his side this evening, as he was unable to connect with the delivery.
Reading made a triple change to try and take advantage of their comeback as Kelvin Abrefa, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan and Femi Azeez all entered the fray as Amadou Mbengue, Shane Long and former Rover Lucas João all departed.
Whilst Sam Gallagher couldn’t find the back of the net, he did play a vital part in seeing Rovers restore their lead in the 82nd minute. Tyler Morton picked up the ball inside the final-third, as he found the feet of Gallagher who delivered a fantastic defence-splitting backheel into the path of substitute Ryan Hedges who managed to poke an outside of the footed effort beyond the onrushing Lumley to send Rovers into raptures as the score became 2-1.
Reading’s evening went from bad to worse in the 85th minute, as Mamadou Loum hit the self-destruct button and earned himself a red card as he headbutted Gallagher following the attacker’s robust challenge which saw him booked by Darren Bond.
Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan was booked soon after he entered the pitch, as he fouled Rovers skipper, Lewis Travis in the 89th minute.
As the clock ticked over into the 90th minute, Mr. Bond added on five extra minutes as Rovers’ dominance continued into the final stages, with Reading looking at damage limitation after going down to 10 men. That is how the affair ended, as Ewood Park roared with delight after their side had won a hard-fought contest, that they should have, in truth, won by a larger margin than just the one goal.
Whilst Rovers should have been out of sight in this game, they managed to react well in what was, a ‘must win’ game. Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side did well to react after being pegged level. So many times in recent years, we have seen Rovers falter after failing to increase their goal tally and it was nice to see a side continuing their fight towards securing maximum points by overcoming the setbacks that came their way.
Following the midweek Championship fixtures, Rovers have now created a buffer of five points between themselves in 5th and Norwich City in 7th. The Blues sit on 61 points from 37 games played, whilst the Canaries are on 56 points.
Next up for Rovers is their FA Cup Quarter Final clash with Premier League aspirers, Sheffield United, on Sunday 19th March. The battle at Bramall Lane will be live on ITV 1 and will kick-off at midday. After the Blues’ domestic cup fate is sealed, they will enter a two week international break, before resuming action away in the Second City, as they prepare to travel to Birmingham City for the second time this campaign. That tie with John Eustace’s side will be on April Fool’ Day at 3pm. Following those successive away clashes, Rovers will host the aforementioned Canaries at Ewood Park on Saturday 7th April at 3pm, as they move ever closer towards securing a playoff spot for the first time since relegation from the Premier League in 2011-12.