Liverpool held in FA Cup stalemate by Blackburn Rovers

Rovers’ stout defence keeps hosts at bay and sets up quarter final replay at Ewood Park

Emre Can challenges Blackburn Rovers’ impressive Rudy Gestede during their 0-0 FA Cup quarter-final draw at Anfield. Photograph: Reuters

Emre Can challenges Blackburn Rovers’ impressive Rudy Gestede during their 0-0 FA Cup quarter-final draw at Anfield. Photograph: Reuters

 

Liverpool 0 Blackburn Rovers 0

“One Jack Walker” reverberated from the Anfield Road Stand as 6,000 Blackburn Rovers fans marked their club’s Premier League title win at Liverpool 20 years ago by honouring the benefactor who made it possible. But this was a celebration of the present as much as the past after Gary Bowyer’s Championship team frustrated Liverpool to secure a replay at Ewood Park and a well-earned shot at Wembley on their own terms.

Bowyer marked the stalemate with a polite wave to the directors’ box, where the Rovers’ contingent were all air-punches and hugs after their determined side had held firm against the in-form team in the Premier League.

Blackburn’s post-match celebrations were more captivating than the quarter-final in truth and, as Bolton Wanderers discovered in the fourth round, a draw at Anfield does not represent the end of the job against Brendan Rodgers’ side.

The first part of what Rodgers hopes will prove a trophy-winning dynasty is proving a complicated objective. Liverpool struggled to break down Bowyer’s packed midfield and resilient rearguard and could have few complaints over the outcome.

An inviting draw for Liverpool brought no guarantee of Wembley and Rodgers’ men must have realised a long, awkward afternoon was in store the moment they lost Martin Skrtel to a worrying head injury after two minutes. Rudy Gestede was a big, troublesome problem all game and his first impression involved catching the Liverpool defender in the face with a flailing arm as they challenged for a high ball, although it was Skrtel’s head-first landing that caused the damage.

There were worrying scenes as the Slovakia international lay prone on the pitch for eight minutes, attended by 10 medical staff, before being taken off on a stretcher strapped to a spinal board. Thankfully Skrtel defiantly raised two tattooed arms aloft as he was carried away and his withdrawal was confirmed as a precaution against possible concussion rather than serious injury. In his absence, and with Emre Can starting in central midfield in place of the injured Joe Allen, the task of containing Rovers’ towering centre-forward fell to Kolo Touré, Skrtel’s replacement, Glen Johnson and Dejan Lovren.

Liverpool’s makeshift back three were stretched frequently before half-time while their array of attacking talent had their own difficulties against Blackburn’s supremely well-organised back-line and midfield five. It was not until the second half that Rodgers’ team were able to exert a measure of control on the tie.

Lee Williamson typified the visitors’ work-rate and tenacity in central midfield, shutting down Can and Philippe Coutinho at the earliest opportunity, and Matthew Kilgallon had to be on high alert to read Liverpool’s attempted first time passes into Daniel Sturridge or Raheem Sterling.

The plan almost succeeded on several occasions but Rovers’ goalkeeper Simon Eastwood read Liverpool’s intentions well. When Eastwood was beaten by Touré in the 33rd minute, after Sturridge’s header from a Coutinho free-kick fell to the Ivory Coast defender via a Blackburn player, a correct offside call curtailed Anfield’s celebrations. Liverpool also had penalty appeals denied when first Kilgallon made a vital interception to dispossess Adam Lallana inside the area and, in the second half, when the Blackburn captain hauled back Sturridge off the ball.

Not that the quarter-final flowed one way. Rovers’ formation prevented Liverpool finding their usual fluency until Rodgers’ side upped their tempo after the break but it also troubled the home defence when the visitors advanced in numbers. Gestede was central to their chances of an upset. The France-born forward out-jumped Simon Mignolet at a Tom Cairney free-kick only to head wide, pressured Johnson into diverting Craig Conway’s cross just wide of his own goal and had a half-volley blocked inside the area by Liverpool’s converted left wing-back, Sterling.

Gestede’s presence, and a decent first touch, gave Blackburn a potent outlet and they came close to open the scoring following a flowing move from left to right on the half hour. A series of one-touch passes resulted in Ben Marshall squaring across Liverpool’s penalty area, Gestede dummied and the in-rushing Conway had a glorious opening only to slice wide of Mignolet’s goal. Alex Baptiste went much closer shortly after the restart when he met Conway’s corner with a powerful, free header. The defender’s effort was destined for the roof of the net until the Liverpool goalkeeper showed superb reflexes to tip over from close range.

Thereafter, Liverpool were encamped in and around the Blackburn area but constant pressure did not translate into clear-cut opportunity. Sterling sent a diving header wide and substitute Mario Balotelli shot over from distance but the home side rarely threatened to break down Blackburn.

(Guardian service)

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