MATCH REPORT 2023/24: Blackburn Rovers 1 – 1 Norwich City

MATCH REPORT 2023/24: Blackburn Rovers 1 – 1 Norwich City

Blackburn Rovers picked up a third successive draw as they fought hard to come back and earn a point against high-flying Norwich City. The first comeback points at home of the season saw John Eustace’s side edge closer towards mid-table and become one of only four teams to take points away from the Canaries since the start of 2024.

As the Blues returned to Ewood Park for the first-time in three games, John Eustace made three changes from the team that held out for a 0-0 draw in midweek in South Wales against Cardiff City. John Buckley started a league game for the first-time this season for Rovers as he came in to replace Jake Garrett. Ryan Hedges also returned to the team after being rested in his homeland as he replaced Ben Chrisene at left-wing-back with the final change of the day  seeing Tyrhys Dolan – who made his 150th Rovers appearance on Tuesday night – take the place of Yasin Ayari. Sammie Szmodics – who was making his 300th EFL appearance today – arrived at Ewood Park in a celebratory mood, despite having no sleep after his became a father for the second-time on Saturday morning; Congratulations, Sammie!

With the changes in the playing personnel confirmed, there was also a change set to occur in the backroom staff as under-19s European Championship winning manager, with England – Keith Downing – joined the staff at Ewood, to be an assistant alongside John Eustace. The experienced former midfielder, who is also the uncle of former Rover, Paul Downing, with re-link back with Eustace who worked together in the Second City. With the incoming, went an outgoing as Head of Performance, Ben Rosen also signalled his intent to leave Rovers upon February’s end, as Karl Hodges was promoted into the role on an interim basis.

On #OneRovers day, Ewood Park united ahead of kick-off as the visitors got the ball rolling in East Lancashire as they were aiming to gain their twentieth point of 2024 after starting the new calendar year on fire. They were also looking to avenge November’s 3-1 defeat at Carrow Road at the hands of Rovers.

After just five minutes gone, Sondre Tronstad was looking to start lively as he fired an effort from range as Angus Gunn got down to his left to stop the Norwegian’s early effort.

In the 14th minute, referee Oliver Langford brandished the game’s first booking the way of Tyrhys Dolan who brought down Kenny McLean.

Moments later, Rovers were forced into their first change of the game as Harry Pickering made an earlier than anticipated appearance as he replaced Ryan Hedges who – despite being injured – managed to walk off which would have allayed some fears around Ewood.

Rovers began to finally look threatening at set-pieces as Sam Gallagher met Pickering’s delivery, but again, Angus Gunn was on-hand to deny Rovers the opener.

Gunn’s contributions proved to be vitally important as the Canaries took then lead in the 22nd minute after they won a controversial free-kick on the edge of the Rovers box. After John Buckley’s stab saw referee Langford give a free-kick to the visitors despite much debate from the Rovers contingency, Marcelino Núñez stepped up and dispatched a fantastic free-kick into the top left-hand corner for 1-0, as Aynsley Pears was rooted to the spot.

Gabriel Sara was using his technique to thread Josh Sargent through as the American closed in on goal, but some fine positioning from Aynsley Pears saw the goalkeeper win the duel and deny Norwich a quick second, just two minutes after the deadlock was broken.

Angus Gunn was again called into action to deny Sam Gallagher, who would have been disappointed not to have drawn the sides level on 29 minutes. After Pickering sent the forward through, Gunn spread himself and managed to deny the forward a fourth of the season.

The 34th minute saw a repeat with Gunn saving the day for Norwich again as Gallagher once again met a cross – this time from John Buckley – but the former Southampton shot-stopper was on top once more.

Just before the fourth official raised three minutes on the board, with the first-half coming to a close, Rovers saw a corner drop at the feet of Sammie Szmodics whose shot was blocked into the path of Callum Brittain who was lurking on the edge of the area, but the full-back’s shot narrowly zipped over the bar and behind via the roof of the net, as the half-time whistle soon came.

John Eustace would have been happy with the response of his players after going a goal down. Although the Rovers boss would have been frustrated to go into the break behind, he would have had some frustrations regarding the awarding of the free-kick that split the difference between the two teams. Whilst conceding was a disappointment, Eustace would have also been baffled as to how his side hadn’t gotten into the break level after the plethora of chances they managed to fashion and saw saved by Gunn in the first-half.

David Wagner, by contrast, would have been dealing with a mix of relief and delight at the break. The American would have been pleased with how his side had managed to retain their composure and held firm, despite some late flurries by Rovers. With his side in fine form, the Canaries boss would have wanted his side to continue their dominance of the game and try and extend their fine run in 2024.

As the second-half drew closer, Rovers emerged from the tunnel early, as Sammie Szmodics got the game back underway. Rovers were aiming to do something they often haven’t done this season, which was to come from behind and earn something from a game, particularly at Ewood Park.

After just five minutes, Norwich started the brighter of the two teams as Christian Fassnacht had a one-on-one with Pears, but the alert goalkeeper sped out of his goal, meeting the Swiss winger and winning the ball with a fantastic sliding challenge clearance.

In the 56th minute, a Pickering corner saw Kyle McFadzean leave Angus Gunn scrambling as the Scottish ‘keeper was forced to tip the ball behind for another set-piece.

The subsequent corner spelt trouble for the Canaries as that’s how Rovers’ equaliser appeared as Pickering once again delivered, but this time, it was the other half of the ex-Coventry City central defensive partnership that won the aerial duel as skipper, Dominic Hyam jumped highest in the Rovers box to meet the cross and find the bottom left-hand corner of Gunn’s goal to draw the score level at 1-1!

Rovers’ tails were up with the equaliser as Sammie Szmodics looked to send Gallagher in with a low cross in the 61st minute, but Gunn again foiled the attacker who slid in and nearly clattered the brave shot-stopper.

In the 63rd minute, David Wagner made his first change as Onel Hernández took the place of Borja Sainz.

Moments after the change, Norwich came close to re-taking the lead as Sara’s free-kick was met by former Rover and current Canaries skipper, Grant Hanley, but the central defender couldn’t divert the delivery towards goal as he nearly collided with the post.

As time passed, with Rovers looking more in the ascendency in the second-half, John Eustace made his second change of the game in the 75th minute as Andrew Moran replaced John Buckley.

Simultaneously, Norwich made their own swap as pantomime villain, Ashley Barnes made an appearance as goalscorer, Marcelino Núñez departed.

Despite only being on the field for two minutes, Ashley Barnes nearly put his team back ahead, but was forced to hear the brunt of the jeers from the home ends as he latched onto Onel Hernández’s low cross, but sent his shot well wide of Pears, between the post.

With 79 minutes gone, another booking was handed out by Oliver Langford, who both supporters would admit was having a terrible game in the middle of the park, as Fassnacht became the latest to be cautioned.

A third Rovers substitution was made in the 85th minute as the attack was freshened up with Rovers looking to try and nick a late winner as Arnór Sigurðsson took the place of Tyrhys Dolan with six minutes left.

The theme of simultaneous substitutions continued as Wagner made three in the 85th minute as Jacob Sørensen, Sam McCallum and Liam Gibbs were all introduced, as Grant Hanley, Dimitris Giannoulis and Christian Fassnacht departed.

Arnór Sigurðsson made an instant impact as he managed to earn Rovers a corner as his strike from outside the area pinballed behind for a corner which the Icelandic international took himself. The former CSKA Moscow attacker lofted in the late set-piece in-search of Rovers’ first 85+ minute winner since Ben Brereton Díaz’s winner on the final day of 2022-23 away at Millwall in the 4-3 humdinger, but Kyle McFadzean’s header was wide of the mark.

With three minutes added on at the end of the game, the final minute of time saw some handbags between Scott Wharton and ex-Burnley duo, Ben Gibson and Ashley Barnes which saw the two centre-backs both booked for their troubles as the full-time whistle soon followed moments later.

All in all, a fine point against the second-most in-form team in the division since the turn of the calendar year. Whilst Rovers lacked some real attacking spark in the first-half, regarding the intricate build-up play that the terraces have become accustomed to, they did still manage to cause a very competent Norwich City side, a lot of problems. With Angus Gunn coming to their rescue on more than one occasion, Rovers will be left mightily encouraged with today’s performance and point and will be hoping to use it as a foundation as the season enters its latter stages. Whilst the manner of the Norwich goal will leave the Blues frustrated, three consecutive draws shows a resilience that perhaps previously eluded Rovers, despite them having led in the first of those against Preston North End.

With an extra point on the board, Rovers are now 16th in the Championship. Despite moving up to 39 points, they remain on their negative -12 goal-difference. Although five of the eight teams below Rovers won today, they will take a lot of encouragement from their performance today as they get set to face a tough run-in.

Speaking of that run-in, Rovers’ next game sees them take a break from the league as they welcome Newcastle United – who have just lost 4-1 to Arsenal as of writing – to Ewood Park in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup on Tuesday 27th February at 7:45pm. After their FA Cup fate is decided, John Eustace and his side start March with another trip to South Wales as they head to Swansea City on Saturday 2nd March for the 3pm start, before returning to East Lancashire in the midweek to host Millwall on Tuesday 5th March for another 7:45pm game.