Derby County 2 Darren Bent 68, 90+2
Blackburn Rovers 0
This day may, in retrospect, turn out to be a pivotal one for the Rams in this important season.
Not only did we gather a crucial three points from this hard fought win over Blackburn to lift ourselves back up to 2nd, but George Thorne made his competitive comeback with 45 minutes for the U-21 side who thrashed Stoke City 7-1.
The continued return to fitness of the midfielder, who is so important to the way we play, is a boost to everyone involved with the club and while there is some way to go before he is orchestrating our play it is a relief to see him playing again after the crushing blow of that pre-season injury.
Compared to the team that started against Forest Ryan Shotton replaced Cyrus Christie, Simon Dawkins replaced the injured Johnny Russell and Jeff Hendrick replaced Craig Bryson.
After the experimentation against Chesterfield in the FA Cup it was back to plan A formation wise with the 4-3-3 facing up to Blackburn’s well organised and drilled two banks of four with Tom Cairney playing behind the nippy Josh King.
It was a surprise, though not a disappointment, to see Rovers lining up without either Jordan Rhodes or Rudy Gestede, both of them on the bench. Was this a bit of asset protection in advance of a sale by the Venky’s – difficult to say and unsuccessful, if so, as Gestede appeared before half time to replace the injured Tom Cairney but he himself had to be replaced when injured in the second half.
This was a gritty win for the Rams featuring some good performances from a number of players. Will Hughes was again excellent, always looking for the ball, always providing a threat with his skill and there were two particularly impressive examples of twinkle toed skill from him in the first half as he manoeuvred the ball away from defenders snapping around his heels.
Omar Mascarell had his best game of the season combining his usual ease on the ball with more bite and disruption of Blackburn’s play and looking the part as the defensive midfield pivot.
Richard Keogh was closer to his best than has been the case for a while, some excellent positioning and interceptions allied to a number of shuddering blocks with a few barnstorming charges forward thrown in for good measure. It has been suggested that he was benefitting from a more disciplined right back performance from Ryan Shotton and I think there is merit in that. Shotts was composed on his return to the team and exhibited more positional awareness than Cyrus Christie has done in recent games. And that long throw of his is quite an option for us.
We held the ball well in the first half without ever really carving out a clear chance. The good work of that first half was nearly lost when a misplaced pass from Jeff Hendrick just before the break almost led to a goal with Josh King, fortunately, blazing over.
While never in the brutal class of the Mark Hughes era Blackeye Rovers this generation of Rovers were physical and, more than any team I have seen for a while, looked to hit the long ball to try and exploit their pace up front.
The second half was proving to be more of the same, Jamie Ward and Simon Dawkins labouring on the flanks, both appearing to lack some sharpness and inevitably generating a few what might have beens were it not for the absence of Johnny Russell and Jordan Ibe.
The signing of Darren Bent, though, has given us another option and he had only been on the pitch for five minutes before bundling the ball into the net after another of Ryan Shotton’s long throws
The win was not seen out with ease. Blackburn threw Jordan Rhodes on and started launching the ball into our box and one superb tackle from Omar Mascarell and one even more superb save from Lee Grant were needed to keep us in front.
It was good to see Mason Bennett appearing as a substitute late on and he was instrumental in the second goal that took the pressure off – breaking down the left wing and putting in an excellent cross for Chris Martin who saw his shot well saved by Jason Steele but there in the right place, at the right time was our new penalty area predator Darren Bent to put the game away.
This was such an important three points against a good Championship side.
To be back up to second with 19 games to go means our fate is in our hands and if we can ensure that remains the case as the number of games dwindle away this season may yet have a very happy ending.