Preview: Blackburn Rovers

A week ago, Coventry City were not only looking to get out of the relegation zone but were looking to push on beyond the lower reaches of the table. A week later, the Sky Blues remain in the bottom three, have started leaking goals again and are under a transfer embargo (admittedly, one that should be over by the January window). It’s never boring with this football club, but it’s up to the players and manager to prevent the uncertainty making what is a bad situation in the league table even worse.

A home game against a bang in-form and second-place Blackburn Rovers side is just about the toughest test possible of this team’s mettle. The past week has highlighted that the team’s home form continues to be an issue. As vital as it is that this game has been kept in the city of Coventry, that has to be turned into more of an advantage for the team than it has been been for the past year.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-5-1-1): Wilson; Rose, McFadzean, Panzo; Kane, Allen, Eccles, Hamer, Bidwelll; Palmer; Gyokeres.

It isn’t clear at the time of writing just how seriously the weekend’s illness in the camp remains heading into this upcoming game. Mark Robins commented that a few who were involved at the weekend were among the ill but had avoided symptoms, if they were to have been subsequently laid up, it drastically changes the hand the manager has to play – which would, hopefully, at least be eased by others returning to the fold.

After naming a strikerless starting XI on Saturday, Viktor Gyokeres’ inclusion in the action from the bench raises the hope that Mark Robins will have a centre-forward to call upon for this game. With Callum O’Hare only just back from injury and Kasey Palmer having had well-documented fitness issues, the possible return of Gyokeres will allow the manager to rotate between his two creative tens, which could be very effective later on in games as one replaces the latter to take on a tired defence.

Presuming Mark Robins has as strong a hand as is possible, the key concern for this game is how he looks to balance the attacking potential of this team with shielding a defence that leaks two goals a game unless heavily protected. One of the key areas to get right looks to be midfield, where Gustavo Hamer’s attacking zeal has added a threat but may be what has left the defence looking so brittle. It may be an idea to drop Jamie Allen a little deeper to make a midfield three. Additionally, with Ben Sheaf having looked out-of-sorts at the weekend, having been carrying a knock, bringing in Josh Eccles as someone who can break the play up in the middle of the park could provide that much-needed balance – presuming, of course, that Eccles is available for this game.

Some sloppy goalkeeping and terrible kicking from Ben Wilson over the past two games raises the prospect of a change in goal. Mark Robins may well feel that Wilson still has some credit left in the bank after being a part of the impressive clean sheet run over the past month, as he looks to avoid a potentially disruptive change in a key area of the pitch. If Wilson keeps his place in the side, he will have to avoid further mistakes in order to keep hold of it.

Last Time We Met

Both Coventry City and Blackburn Rovers had play-off hopes in mind as they met at the CBS Arena back in March. Tony Mowbray’s away side looked out-of-sorts after a poor run heading into the game, with the Sky Blues looking willing to stick the knife in during an energetic first-half display. An early own goal, forced by Callum O’Hare, saw Coventry dominate the opening 45 minutes. However, they neglected to score the killer second.

With that reprieve, Blackburn introduced the attacking duo of Bradley Dack and Ben Brereton Diaz from the bench and instantly reversed the flow of the game. Coventry City had little response to the drastic upping of intensity and quality from the away side, with Dack pulling Rovers level within seconds of the re-start and a second looking only a matter of time. It was frustrating then that, after weathering that storm, Coventry fell behind later on from a set-piece routine and found themselves in a familiar position of chasing a game late-on at the CBS Arena.

Blackburn Rovers had the quality to land the killer blow but opted to wind the clock down in a pretty egregious fashion, providing Coventry City with their window to salvage a point. In the dying seconds of the game, a twisting run from Fabio Tavares allowed Fankaty Dabo to find space on the edge of the area to pick out Viktor Gyokeres for a satisfying late goal to tie the scores.

The Opposition

The Manager – Jon Dahl Tomasson

The former Milan forward was a high-calibre appointment for Blackburn Rovers over the summer as they looked to replace the long-serving Tony Mowbray. After winning back-to-back league titles in Sweden with Malmo, Tomasson probably could have set his sights on a decent posting in one of Europe’s top-flight leagues but was instead lured over to a Blackburn side at something of a crossroads.

A host of key players left Ewood Park over the summer, with the club seeing very little money for them, which left big gaps in the squad to be plugged. To sit second in the league under those circumstances provides further evidence that Tomasson was a significant coup for Blackburn to bring in as manager. Rovers are a curious outfit under Tomasson’s direction, yet to draw a game – or even concede an equaliser after taking the lead – with some glaring contrasts between their best and worst football. Luck may have been a factor in a couple of their recent runs, but that four-game winning streak has set confidence at Blackburn at a very high level right now.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Kaminski; Travis, Hyam, Scott Wharton, Pickering; Adam Wharton, Morton; Brereton Diaz, Szmodics, Hedges; Gallagher.

For all the players that Blackburn Rovers lost over the summer, keeping hold of star striker Ben Brereton Diaz has been an excellent move for the team on a sporting level – even if they could end up losing him on a free transfer at the end of the campaign. The Chile international is an industrious, physical and quick presence in attack, who tends to be at his best coming in from wide positions where he can devastate in those awkward channels for defences to contend with.

Brereton Diaz’s ability to get in space is aided by the presence of his effective strike partner in Blackburn’s 4-2-3-1 shape, Sam Gallagher. The lanky centre-forward can be inconsistent as a goal threat – although, devastating in his own right at his best – but his work-rate and sheer physical presence is something defences have to contend with, providing openings for Brereton Diaz in the confusion Gallagher causes. It is a better version of the Gary Madine-Jerry Yates for Blackpool combination that Coventry City struggled to contain at the weekend.

Just who operates around Brereton Diaz and Sam Gallagher in attack can be fluid. Sammie Szmodics, Ryan Hedges, Tyrhys Dolan and Bradley Dack provide Jon Dahl Tomasson with excellent options to rotate between, with Hedges and Szmodics the form players in those roles right now. In the middle of a congested fixture list being able to freshen things up in a key area of the pitch could be a big factor in this game.

In central midfield, the young duo of Tyler Morton, on loan from Liverpool, and academy youngster, Adam Wharton, is proving an eye-catching combination. Wharton, whose brother, Scott, is a regular in defence, has burst on the scene in recent weeks with some really cultured performances in the centre of the pitch, with his showing on Saturday against Hull City suggesting that he may be set for the very top. With Adam Wharton tending to push forward, Tyler Morton has done less attention-grabbing stuff but looks like another really adroit, technical footballer. It is possible that one of the two may be rested for this game, but they could dictate the play here if they get in their groove.

At the back, Blackburn Rovers have Dominic Hyam, which automatically makes them a solid, steady unit. The former Sky Blues player has settled in seamlessly to life at Ewood Park, with his efforts aided by the always impressive Thomas Kaminski in goal.

Where Game Will Be Won Or Lost

After two successive games in which Coventry City have felt compelled to take the game to opponents, being underdogs might suit this team in its current guise. That recent run of good form and clean sheets was centred around sitting deep, getting players behind the ball and waiting for opportunities to nick something on the counter, that is likely to be the game-plan here against a Blackburn Rovers side in red-hot form.

Whether a defence-first game-plan can be successful may well come down to two key factors. The first is whether Gustavo Hamer can be disciplined enough without the ball to be content with sitting in front of the defence, instead of chasing opportunities to win possession back and risk leaving space in behind. That is where a midfield three could be valuable, as it allows Hamer to be more proactive while affording the defence a greater level of protection.

The other is how Coventry City’s back-line looks to contain Ben Brereton Diaz and Sam Gallagher. Kyle McFadzean is likely to be tasked with marking the tall Sam Gallagher (providing Gallagher doesn’t peel off into wide areas), which will require the wide centre-backs to drop back in cover when the captain enters aerial challenges. Being able to keep a handle on Gallagher is only part of the equation, but if the back five can keep their shape, it should limit the space in behind from which Brereton Diaz can be devastating.

The danger of sitting back is not only that the game-plan will have to change if a Blackburn Rovers side that hasn’t let a lead slip takes the lead, but that the away side have good ball-players in midfield and intelligent runners in attack that could take pick holes in Coventry City’s defence if handed possession. However, the contrast in defensive performances for the Sky Blues between the past two games and the seven that preceded them makes a compelling argument to opt for the risk-averse approach here.

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