MATCH REPORT 2023/24: Blackburn Rovers 0 – 0 Southampton

MATCH REPORT 2023/24: Blackburn Rovers 0 – 0 Southampton

The much-anticipated clash of the Championship’s two leading goalscorers, ended goalless, in typical fashion as Sammie Szmodics and Adam Armstrong both drew blanks as Blackburn Rovers fought hard in their first Ewood Park meeting with a clinical Southampton side, in 19 years, to edge closer to securing safety by earning their seventh league clean-sheet of the season and third under John Eustace’s stewardship.

After Easter Monday’s five-star display in the 5-1 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Rovers came into this affair with Premier League-chasing Southampton full of confidence, naming an unchanged team as the prolific quartet of Sammie Szmodics, Tyrhys Dolan, Ryan Hedges and Sam Gallagher – against his former club – all continued up top to try and replicate their heroics from the start of the week. Although Harry Pickering had limped off on Monday with a hamstring issue, he was deemed fit to play as he secured his 100th league start for Rovers, which was also his 250th career appearance.

Just before Sammie Szmodics got the game underway, with him still searching for his record-breaking 30th goal of the season in all competitions, former Rover and fan favourite, Morten Gamst Pedersen was introduced to the crowd as he lapped up the applause from the three home stands of Ewood Park just moments before Craig Pawson blew the afternoon’s first whistle.

With the game just six minutes old, Rovers managed to craft their first opportunity of the game from a deep set-piece, as a free-kick was lofted in towards Scott Wharton who tried to find Sam Gallagher with a nod, but the former Saint’s own header was saved by Gavin Bazunu.

Southampton were soon able to show their quality that had seen them score at league one goal in their last 31 league games – which included a 25-game unbeaten run – as David Brooks broke free down the right and sent in a low cross towards former Rover, Adam Armstrong who somehow managed to turn the ball wide of the far-post.

Joe Aribo was the next Saint to try hi luck in the 25th minute as he latched onto Jack Stephen’s cross with a header that ricocheted back off the bar and hit Aynsley Pears before the Rovers defence cleared their lines.

As Rovers tried to move up the field with Ryan Hedges, the winger’s afternoon only lasted 27 minutes as he pulled up, holding his hamstring, with gasps filling Ewood Park as he stuttered to a halt and fell down holding his leg. After a few moments of treatment where both sides were able to refuel on the touchline and take in some tactical instructions, Hedges didn’t reappear on the pitch when Rovers were given possession back by the Saints, as Dilan Markanday emerged from the bench to take his place.

After half-an-hour, Szmodics continued to try and become the first player since Alan Shearer in 1995-96, to score 30 goals in a single campaign for Rovers, as he received the ball just outside the Southampton box after Rovers had won it back, following some sloppy possession by the visitors. With Szmodics alert, he spotted his international teammate, Gavin Bazunu, off his line and tried to put away an audacious chip from range, but the effort landed on the roof of the net.

Szmodics was again out to test Bazunu in search of his milestone finish after 38 minutes as he again attempted to lob the former Manchester City shot-stopper, but he once again failed to deliver the right amount of power and accuracy as a goal-kick soon restarted play.

With 45 minutes on the clock, Craig Pawson allocated a minimum of four minutes of time onto the end of the first-half, despite neither side managing to really create any chance at goal that put either Pears or Bazunu on alert, as the first-half concluded goalless.

John Eustace would have been delighted with his side’s defensive efforts in the first period that managed to quell one of the division’s highest scorers to next to no real chance that left Pears scrambling. The boss would have wanted his side to continue their first period showing and try to utilise the attacking strength they had, on the counter, to try and seek holes in Southampton’s expansive play.

Russell Martin would have been the more agitated of the managers as his side had failed to create nowhere near as much quality chances as they have become accustomed to. The former Norwich City captain would have wanted his side to keep the faith, but ask them to try and increase their attacking tempo in an effort to potentially pull Rovers out of their rigidity and force them to double up their defensive efforts.

The second-half was restarted by another ex-Rover in Joe Rothwell, who received a less than friendly reaction from the home crowd after departing Ewood Park on a free transfer in the summer of 2022.

With 51 minutes gone, Joe Rankin-Costello led a Rovers attack as he picked out Tyrhys Dolan on the left-hand side. The winger, who scored his fifth of the season on Easter Monday, managed to find half an inch to test Bazunu who made a comfortable save.

Eight minutes later, Dolan was soon booked after crashing into his former teammate, Adam Armstrong on halfway.

David Brooks was the next to see yellow in the 62nd minute, as he was penalised for yanking down Joe Rankin-Costello as the midfielder burst forwards on a trademark run.

The booking proved to be Brooks’ last involvement as he departed the pitch with Ché Adams replacing him, whilst Joe Rothwell departed to a chorus of boos as Will Smallbone took his place in midfield.

Despite only being on the field for three minutes, Ché Adams nearly managed to put the Saints ahead after Joe Aribo picked him out and laid the ball off to him, yet the Scottish forward’s effort curled past the far-post.

On 70 minutes, Rovers won their only corner of the game as Harry Pickering played it short to Tyrhys Dolan who supplied the one-two as Pickering’s ball saw Sam Gallagher leap highest, but he couldn’t angle the nod towards goal on the stretch.

Four minutes later, Szmodics was at it again as he broke into space but his touches let him down as his effort was blocked by the retreating Taylor Harwood-Bellis and the on-rushing Bazunu, with Szmodics’ frustrations at not grabbing the elusive 30 increased.

Moments later, Rovers were charging forwards again as they looked the most likely of the two sides to grab a winner as time ticked on. Callum Brittain delivered a fine cross towards Rankin-Costello, but the midfielder couldn’t charge the ball into the net as his effort veered wide of the mark.

After 75 minutes, Russell Martin turned to his bench again to introduce Samuel Edozie and Kamaldeen Sulemana as Ryan Fraser and Adam Armstrong departed, with the latter receiving a warm round of applause and a short chant from the Blackburn End as he reciprocated the home crowd’s appreciation with tired applause.

Southampton’s best chance of the game arguably came in the 80th minute as Kyle Walker-Peters went on a run and managed to craft an effort inside the box that saw him poke the ball towards goal with his left-foot as he beat all the Rovers backline and Pears, but Callum Brittain was on-hand to keep Rovers’ clean-sheet intact as he swooped in and prevented it from crossing the goalline with a clearance from inside the six-yard box.

Sam Gallagher fantastic work-rate again showed in the 83rd minute as he regained Rovers possession of the ball with a sliding tackle as Dolan scooped up the loose ball and drove forwards, finding Rankin-Costello, whose effort was smothered by Bazunu and cleared by the defence.

As Southampton ramped up the pressure, knowing that they had to win today, to keep any slim automatic promotion hopes alive as Leeds United, Ipswich Town and Leicester City sped away from them, Russell Martin switched to a 4-2-4 system and introduced Sékou Mara for Kyle Walker-Peters as Southampton gambled to try and secure what would be, a crucial three points.

With 88 minutes gone, Kamaldeen Sulemana burst past Pickering and managed to force another effort on goal, but Pears was quick to come out to meet the substitute as he pulled off a fine save, late in the encounter.

Moments later, the substitute was back at it as he burst down the right, but was yanked back by Pickering who knew he was beaten for pace, as the left-back earnt a booking for his encounter with Sulemana.

With 90 minutes on the clock, like in first-half stoppage time, Craig Pawson asked for a minimum of four minutes to be held aloft by the fourth official, as Southampton continued to try and push for a late winner in-front of their travelling 2,499 fans.

There wasn’t much to get excited about in added time, bar a couple of bookings and some argie-bargie as the game with a better result for Rovers than it did for Southampton as in the 93rd minute, Joe Rankin-Costello saw yellow for delaying a quick free-kick, before Ché Adams was also booked after 95 minutes for an off the ball incident that triggered a lot of confrontation between the two sides, before ultimately fizzling out to the final whistle after Aynsley Pears sent a free-kick deep towards the left-hand corner flag between the Blackburn End and the Jack Walker Stand, leaving the home supporters happier than those set to tot up 500 miles, as they prepared for the 250-mile journey back south.

A fantastic showing of ‘togetherness, commitment and hard work’, as John Eustace would say, was on full display at Ewood Park as Rovers battled their way to an incredibly deserved point that brought the fans, the players and the staff closer together. Although the goal is by no means officially achieved, Rovers and their fans can start to breath easier as four points from two games leaves them in an increasingly stronger position than was the situation a few weeks ago.

Speaking of the league table, today’s point sees Rovers move up to 46 points, although they do have the second-highest goal-difference of the bottom cohort, with -10 – one behind Plymouth Argyle’s who rose to -9 after a 1-0 win over already relegated Rotherham United on Friday evening. With five games left to play, Rovers will be hoping to hold onto their current 16th position to see off any nerves as the league edges closer to its conclusion.

Next up for Rovers is a trip to the West Country where they will be the latest visitors to Ashton Gate as they face Liam Manning’s side on Wednesday 10th April at 7:45pm. After that, a clash with another Premier League hopeful is on the agenda, as the Blues travel to Elland Road to face automatic promotion-seekers, Leeds United on Saturday 13th April – a game that will kick-off at 12:30 due to it being broadcast on Sky Sports. Speaking of Rovers on the tele, their next home game is also shown on the broadcaster with them deciding that the potential relegation clash against Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday 21st April – another 12:30 start – would be fine viewing, with tensions high.