Friday night under the lights. It's a snowy night in Stoke I'm told, but you wouldn't know it from the perfectly clear pitch. You can see the fog from the players' breath, while the boards are making me crave a Hobgoblin IPA and some Wrights Pies. Heading into this game Blackburn sat 4th in the table after 4 league wins in a row, whilst Stoke were in 15th. However, Stoke most recently dismantled Sunderland 5-1.
Rovers came out strong; in the first 2 minutes we had a nice break from John Buckley to Sammie Smoz-dicks (as the announcer keeps referring to him). What's most notable to me from Jon Dahl Tomasson’s time is that when we're playing well, he's got our players covering the whole pitch. For the first ten minutes, our players were all over. Joe Rankin-Costello, who recently seemed set to transfer or be loaned has been in fine form, and is covering defense and moving forward to offense. Tyrhys Dolan and John Buckley were roving all over the middle of the pitch, and Sammie was coming back and going forward to help out Sam Gallagher.
Eleven minutes in is where we started to fall apart. We spent the first half having men back in defense, but just kept making errors all over the park. We gave a break away, and on what should have been a goal, thankfully Stoke hit the crossbar. When Ki-Jana Hoever finally scored in the 24th minute, it was incredibly poor defending. We had the men back, but the ball was lobbed over them all directly to him, and he had all the time in the world to tap it in off the bounce. Stoke seemed to be playing us on the counter attack, rather than through sustained pressure, but it's not as if we were putting forth any offense of our own. That goal was where we gave up for the half.
There were multiple appeals by Stoke for penalties, and right before the half was one that should have been given, but it didn't matter as Hoever's second goal in the 43rd minute came from sustained pressure by Stoke and multiple poor clearances by Blackburn. That's not to take anything away from his goal; it was a fantastic cross to a diving header.
Right at the end of the half was the first time in over half an hour where we did anything. A Stoke defender clearly had his arm in the air and hit the ball while in the box, but another penalty appeal was ignored by the referee. We were fortunate to escape the half only down by two goals.
The second half saw no changes, but Ben Brereton-Diaz and Ryan Hedges began warming up on the sidelines. This half started much better than we'd finished the first, finally bringing some attempts at Stoke. A beautifully hit ball by Lewis Travis in the 53rd minute dipped just wide and seemed to give us some hope that it wouldn't just be a one-sided affair. A small amount of pressure though led to a break the other way by Stoke, culminating in some great defending by Buckley, who ended up injured in the process and leading to a triple substitution. Smallbone, the same Stoke City player who hit the bar in the first half soon had an even more wide open chance to seal the game, but put it high over the goal.
Any time we seemed to have something going, it ended in a foul call going Stoke's way, or a poor pass that meant our play just fizzled out. While we actually had some life in the second half, two corners in a row came to nothing, and any sustained play seemed to end in us just giving the ball to Stoke. Stoke's third goal was a long time coming, and you cannot say they didn't deserve it. Josh Laurent carried the ball around our entire defense before Tyrese Campbell put it home.
Eleven matches unbeaten ended with a cold, nearly lifeless performance where we were deservedly beaten for our sloppy play. As the traveling support had left the stadium long before the final whistle blew, at least we didn't give up and sit back.
A lovely cross from Callum Brittain, who'd been on for less than two minutes, led to a headed goal by Ben Brereton-Diaz, only his 12th of the season. Another header from Gallagher in the 90th minute was beautifully put in and gave Blackburn a slim chance.
It was too little too late though as both goals were our only two shots on target the entire night and we were deservedly beaten, even though momentum was finally our way heading into 5 minutes of stoppage time. The 3-2 final gave us a small glimmer of hope, but it was 85 minutes a one-sided affair, where the final score defies how comprehensively Stoke City outplayed us.