By Chris Harris
Of all the teams languishing in the lower reaches of the Premiership, Blackburn are perhaps the most surprising strugglers. Mark Hughes guided them to a top-six finish last season - a mere four points behind Arsenal - and a similar feat seemed viable this term.
Rovers have excelled in the Uefa Cup, breezing into the last 32 of the competition after topping their group. But domestically it's a different story. Blackburn lost three times at Ewood Park last season; they have already been beaten four times on home soil in the current campaign. Clearly, they need a productive festive period to clamber back up the table.
As Blackburn prepare for Saturday's trip to Emirates Stadium, Andy Neild of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph talked to Arsenal.com about their stuttering League form, David Bentley's rapid rise, coming to terms with Craig Bellamy's departure and Hughes' likely tactics this weekend.
THE STORY SO FAR
"They haven't really got going because they've been suffering with injuries and they lost a couple of key men in Steven Reid and Ryan Nelsen. Nelsen has not kicked a ball all season, he was a rock at the back last year and a lot of Blackburn's better results were based on him. They have missed Reid's energy in midfield, he's been out since the second week of the season. They also lost Jason Roberts with a broken metatarsal so he's only played a handful of games. On top of that they have lost a couple of others so at times there have been five, six or seven players missing. When you throw in Europe and the extra games that brings, Blackburn's squad has been stretched. They have done very well in the Uefa Cup and before this season their record in Europe was a joke so one of their main priorities was to get their pride back in that respect. They topped their Uefa Cup group and qualified for the last 32 comfortably. They play Bayer Leverkusen next so the draw could have been kinder but I feel they have a chance."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"Arsenal fans will know all about David Bentley and he has done very well this season. He has come on in leaps and bounds after getting a regular run in the side and has scored five goals, most of them spectacular efforts like the ones against Reading and Salzburg. Benni McCarthy has scored nine goals and looks good up front but Brett Emerton has probably been Blackburn's best player of the season so far. He has been a revelation at right back and it has been a new start for him really. Emerton has been here two or three years but he looks a different player at full back. He is more comfortable there, more at ease with the play in front of him."
"They have missed Craig Bellamy and had to change their style a little bit because he was so quick he forced teams to defend deeper against Blackburn. McCarthy offers a different kind of threat, he is better with his back to goal but does not have the same blistering pace. Bellamy made almost as many goals as he scored and Blackburn have missed that cutting edge a bit."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"If they end up finishing in the top half and have a decent run in Europe then they would have had another excellent season. Christmas will be an important time for Blackburn, if they do well they will get into the top half of the table but if they struggle then they won't. It's so tight in the Premiership this year but this time last year they put some wins together and that gave them the impetus for the second half of the season. As Mark Hughes has pointed out Blackburn are only two points worse off than they were at this stage last season so in that context their situation is certainly not disastrous."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"It's not stretching reality to say they could get sucked into a relegation battle, after all they are down there at the minute. They need to keep one eye on what's going on behind them and their results over Christmas will be a big factor."
"McCarthy is suspended so Blackburn are struggling for strikers. Jeffers is also suspended, Roberts is injured so that leaves them with Nonda as the only recognised striker. Hughes will probably go with a 4-5-1 as a result. Emerton is back in the frame so he and Pedersen might take up the wide positions in midfield with Bentley, Tugay and Savage in the centre. At the back Blackburn's injury problems are clearing up so it could be Neill, Ooijer, Gray and perhaps Todd who start. Friedel will be in goal and he is as good as ever. He's one of the most consistent keepers in the Premiership, he keeps producing the goods and he had one of his finest performances against Arsenal the other year when Blackburn won at Highbury."
Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 21 Dec 2006