MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers 1 Blackburn Rovers 0
TIGHT, tense, fraught... God only knows what it will be like watching Wanderers if they actually do make the play-offs.
Up until Chris Eagles’ injury-time strike it seemed a point was a fair one to take from this nip and tuck derby that could easily have gone either way.
The former Manchester United man came off the bench to grab what could be a priceless goal for his side with a sweet, low right-footed strike that bounced in off the post and ensured that those Wanderers’ fans – who had jeered him just a few short weeks ago – were singing his name this time around as the sides left the pitch.
It was an amazing end to a pulsating game in which the Whites were often indebted to Andy Lonergan for keeping a clean sheet.
Adam Bogdan failed a pre-match fitness test, which meant a first league start for the ex-Preston man since his switch from Leeds United last summer.
It was the first league game missed by the Hungarian since last January, when he took over the goalkeeper’s gloves from Jussi Jaaskelainen.
But Lonergan – a Lancastrian well-versed in the local rivalry in these parts – showed himself to be an able replacement, bringing off one stunning save just after half time from Grant Henley.
He also bailed his side out 10 minutes from the end with another brilliant block from Jordan Rhodes’ goalbound effort.
The two other changes from Saturday’s win over Barnsley gave a clue as to how Freedman thought this one would pan out – in came the muscular presence of Medo in midfield, also his first start for the club, and skipper Kevin Davies, for Craig Davies and Chris Eagles.
Right from the off, the football was fast and frenetic. Darren Pratley fizzed a dipping volley just over Jake Kean’s bar in the first 60 seconds and by the time the seventh minute came around, referee Bobby Madley had already given Medo a final warning.
Wanderers settled into their groove first and Kean made his first save of the night to push away a cross-shot from Pratley on the right.
Whites’ fans sang Craig Dawson’s name as he ventured up for the corner in homage to his recent threat at set pieces – but both defences were protecting their area well.
David Ngog stretched his legs for a fine run down the left touchline on the half-hour mark but just as the Frenchman wound up to shoot, he was denied by an excellent challenge by Scott Dann. Home fans called half-heartedly for a penalty but ref Madley was not in a giving mood. Moments later he was waving another shout away, this time when Davies went sprawling.
There had been little by way of clear cut chances in the half until the closing stages, when both sides will feel they should have seized the advantage.
Morten Gamst Pedersen drilled a near post free kick in for Rovers where Grant Henley got a feint touch to send it whistling over Lonergan’s crossbar.
At the other end, Marcos Alonso swung in a cross for Davies, who got above his marker but could only head wide.
Wanderers had Lonergan to thank for keeping the scores level shortly after the restart, as he athletically tipped a Henley header on to the top of the crossbar.
But Freedman’s side gradually wrestled control again and after Pratley had flashed one shot wide from the edge of the box, Kean was called into action again to push away a curling free-kick from Alonso.
Though Wanderers were winning the midfield battle, they were not showing a huge amount of creativity in the middle. And so it was little surprise when Freedman brought off Pratley – who had been working hard as a makeshift wide man – for Eagles.
Craig Davies then replaced namesake Kevin, who had put in a good shift up front without getting much by way of reward.
Wanderers were definitely finishing the stronger and Ngog sent pulses racing when he volleyed a long throw from Alonso just wide 10 minutes from the end.
But one poor backpass from Alonso very nearly threw it all away. The Spaniard hooked the ball blindly back towards his keeper, alerting the predatory instincts of Rhodes. Thankfully, Lonergan was quickly off his line to block the Scotland international’s shot and deny him a 23rd strike of the campaign.
Once again Wanderers seized the advantage and how Chung-Yong Lee didn’t break the deadlock with four minutes left on the clock is anyone’s guess.
Kean had palmed away Medo’s bouncing shot, leaving both Ngog and the Korean to try and tap home the rebound. Their indecision allowed Henley to get across and get his body in front of the shot, leaving the ball to skid agonisingly wide.
Still the tension didn’t stop. Spearing slung in a corner and Craig Dawson threw in his body to try and push the ball over the line.
Rovers hooked it away and suddenly found themselves with an opportunity at the other end – Rhodes’ header bringing yet another stop out of man of the match Lonergan.
David Jones’ chip in stoppage time very nearly ruined the script, but Eagles ripped it up altogether when he picked up the loose ball to drill it off the post with what was the last kick of the game.