Sammie Szmodics celebrated his new contract in style as he chipped Rovers towards six points from their last two games after dispatching a revitalised Birmingham City side, to grab their first points at Ewood Park since mid-October.
After Rovers returned from the international break in fine form, after dispatching Stoke City, 3-0 on their own turf, Jon Dahl Tomasson was forced into one change from Saturday’s victory as the injured Scott Wharton withdrew from the teamsheet and was replaced by skipper, Lewis Travis, who came in at right-back as he did off the bench in Staffordshire. After signing a new contract with the Blues in the week, Sammie Szmodics was in-line to notch his 250th career start on Wednesday night, whilst Hayden Carter was tallying up a century of starts.
In polar conditions at Ewood Park, Tyrhys Dolan got the ball rolling, as Rovers were looking to burst Birmingham’s bubble after Wayne Rooney earnt his first victory as Brum manager with a 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. Rovers, too, were looking to end home hoodoo having not won in Lancashire since the 1-0 victory over Cardiff City over a month ago.
As has been the case at Ewood this season, Rovers started brightly inside the opening ten minutes as the home side won possession high up the pitch before Dolan fashioned a shot which John Ruddy was equal to, as the ex-England international palmed the ball away from his net.
Lukas Jutkiewicz sprung to life in the 11th minute as he tried to test Leopold Wahlstedt, but the Swede was on hand to deny the former Middlesbrough man.
After 16 minutes had passed, Rovers were forced into a change as they suffered from another injury, as Tyrhys Dolan suffered a knee injury before being replaced by Harry Leonard.
With 20 minutes gone, Sammie Szmodics won the ball high up the field before feeding Callum Brittain who came in off the left-wing to try and shoot at goal, but his effort failed to test Ruddy as the ball flew off-target.
Six minutes later, Siriki Dembélé managed to break in behind the Rovers backline and cause a panic as he beat Wahlstedt at his near-post but was denied by the crossbar, as the score remained goalless.
The first booking of the game appeared as Emanuel Aiwu scythed down Szmodics before referee Leigh Doughty brandished a yellow card in the direction of the Cremonese loanee.
Sondre Tronstad was treading on water by the 31st minute as he was also shown the yellow after fouling Jordan James.
Moments later, Rovers were coming forwards as Adam Wharton sent Lewis Travis running down the right as the skipper then tried to pull the ball back for Harry Leonard before the cross was intercepted and cleared for a Rovers corner which the visitors dealt with.
Travis was soon the next to be booked as the game became incredibly tetchy after hauling down Siriki Dembélé, before Krystian Bielik also saw yellow moments later for fouling Andy Moran.
The former Peterborough United winger was Birmingham’s liveliest player as in the 38th minute, he did well to skip past a few Blue and White bodies before picking out Juninho Bacuna, but the former Rangers midfielder failed to get his effort on target.
Just as the clock ticked over to 45 minutes, Andy Moran burst down the right and cut inside to tee-up Brittain on the edge of the box. The former Barnsley man did manage to get a better shot away than his previous attempt as he forced Ruddy into a fine stop.
With half-time on the horizon, Leigh Doughty called for a minimum of five added minutes to be played.
The final act of the half before the break came in the third minute of the five, as Travis managed to somehow pick out Szmodics, but the lively forward couldn’t manage to latch onto the end of the delivery as the half was soon brought to a conclusion.
In the dressing room, Jon Dahl Tomasson would have been calling for more from his side as they had shown some encouraging sides but were not playing to the potential that they had shown last time out. The boss would have wanted more pace to his side’s play as well as more movement to try and pull the visitors apart and drag them out of position.
Wayne Rooney would have been pleased with his side’s first period, as they managed to stay relatively compact defensively whilst troubling Rovers with the odd counter-attack. The Manchester United record goalscorer would have wanted more urgency from his team, despite being quick to remind his team of the potential damage that Rovers could cause, particularly if the crowd were on their side.
Just before Birmingham restarted the game at the start of the second-half, Rovers did make a change at the break as Arnór Sigurðsson came off the bench to replace the booked Lewis Travis, as Callum Brittain reverted to right-back.
The Rovers fans who went to warm up in the concourse were still coming up the stairs on their way to their seats as Sammie Szmodics celebrated his contract in style by putting Rovers ahead in the game with a cheeky chip that brought out the quality of both, the forward and Adam Wharton, for 1-0. As Rovers played the ball out the back, Adam Wharton picked the ball up just inside his own half before turning and playing a sumptuous through-ball into the path of Szmodics who was peeling off the back of his marker. Despite not being able to speed away from the retreating defender, the forward cut back and cleverly spotted that John Ruddy was stood on the edge of his area. That acknowledgement saw Szmodics attempt the audacious cheeky chip, which was executed to perfection as he celebrated taking the lead in-front of the Blackburn End!
With 50 minutes gone, Szmodics played a one-two with Tronstad before looking to pick out Leonard in the box, but the cross was cleared before the substitute could react.
Szmodics’ influence on the game continued as he soon did manage to double the advantage as he put daylight between the two sides with a goal almost identical to the first! After the ball was played inside, Harry Leonard did brilliantly to drop and control the ball before having the composure to turn and slip Szmodics in. The goalscorer again had the presence of mind and vision to see Ruddy again on-rushing out of his net, but this time the chip came from inside the box as it trickled over the white line for 2-0!
Just as the home crowd had settled down in celebration of the second, they were on their feet again for the third as James Hill smashed home his second goal in senior football – after netting his first for Fleetwood Town in 2021. After Rovers worked the ball well in tight spaces to recycle possession, Tronstad had the ball on the right-wing and he laid the ball off to James Hill who had stormed forwards from centre-back. The defender was given the freedom from Ewood Park as cries of ‘SHOOT!’ came from all four corners of the ground. The AFC Bournemouth loanee duly obliged as he delivered a low thunderbolt that Ruddy proved slow to get down to, as it proved too powerful for him to stop as it went in via his gloves for 3-0 as the defender wheeled away in surprise, rather than celebration before sharing a moment with the home fans.
Birmingham’s first change of the game came in the 62nd minute as Ethan Laird replaced Emanuel Aiwu.
The 63rd minute saw the goalmouth action continue, as Siriki Dembélé reduced the arrears to two after a fine finish. After receiving the ball on the left, he skipped past the diving Callum Brittain before curling the ball expertly into the top right-hand corner, past the outstretched Wahlstedt, as he got his team back in the game at 3-1.
As Birmingham pushed forwards for a second, they managed to pick out Lukas Jutkiewicz who nearly grabbed the second with a header towards the near-post, but an outstanding save from Wahlstedt denied the forward from point-blank range.
In the 73rd minute, Szmodics and Sigurðsson combined brilliantly as the former backheeled it into the path of the latter, but Ruddy was on-hand to save the Icelander’s effort.
After a triple switch in the 75th minute which saw Kōji Miyoshi, Oliver Burke and Scott Hogan replace Krystian Bielik, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Jay Stansfield, the visitors did manage to cause a panic amongst the Ewood Park faithful as three minutes after the changes, Siriki Dembélé grabbed a brace from outside the box as he twisted Adam Wharton before releasing a powerful strike straight down the middle of the net which looped over the wingspan of Wahlstedt for 3-2.
With ten minutes to go, Adam Wharton was booked as Rovers picked up a third booking for a challenge. However, he wasn’t the last academy graduate to be booked as Harry Leonard was cautioned in the 87th minute for dissent after preventing a quick City throw-in.
Moments after being booked, Leonard was centimetres away from tapping home Rovers’ fourth of the evening as he tried to latch onto Brittain’s cross, but narrowly missed the ball with his outstretched leg.
The tension inside Ewood Park increased as Leigh Doughty called for a minimum of six added minutes as the clock hit 90 minutes.
Thankfully, however, those nerves in the home ends were eventually calmed as Harry Leonard netted his third Ewood Park league goal to seal all three points for Rovers who looked for all the world set to claim a 4-2 victory. After Sigurðsson broke away down the left, he cut the ball back for Moran who was in acres of space on the counter. The young Irishman, who was around 20-yards from goal, did well to quickly shift the ball as he could feel a black shirt breathing down his neck, as Leonard received it just inside the area before he killed the ball and lasered the ball – by nutmegging Lee Buchanan in the process – into the bottom left-hand corner, just out of Ruddy’s reach for 4-2!
After Kōji Miyoshi’s outside the box effort cleared the crossbar in the 96th minute, the full-time whistle was soon met by cheers of delight and celebration in the home stands as the relief was evident to see on the faces of the support base, as Rovers picked up a second consecutive victory.
That was a game that tested the heart in the freezing cold! Rovers, as per, made things unnecessarily difficult for themselves after a whirlwind 12-minute period which saw them seemingly guarantee themselves three points, before they decided to warm the crowd up by adding nerves to the mix. Whilst it can be forgiven if all the fans decided to delete the first 45 minutes from memory, Rovers were able to turn on the style in the second-half as they showed all of the qualities that they have been threatening to unleash all season. Whilst the goals conceded were clearly the only negative element to the game, the lads showed great character to keep their heads above water, despite the obvious pressure that increased from the visitors.
Ahead of Saturday’s fixtures, Rovers now find themselves on the cusp of the play-offs in 7th place with 28 points and a positive goal-difference of three, from the 18 games that they have played as we enter a hectic December period.
Next up for the Blues is a trip to bottom-of-the-league’s Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday 2nd December at 3pm. After that clash, the Blues are back on home soil despite facing another Yorkshire opponent, as Leeds United come to Ewood Park for a 12:30pm start on Saturday 9th December. Soon after, it’s another midweek clash in Lancashire, as Bristol City are the next arrivals at Ewood Park, with Tuesday 12th December pencilled in, with kick-off highlighted at 7:45pm.