By Matt Fortune
Blackburn Rovers are a side steadily on the rise.
Under the guidance of the pragmatic Mark Hughes, the Lancashire outfit have, in recent years, secured the rights to be mentioned among the 'chasing pack'. This season they have every chance of leaving that behind and joining the front-runners. Rovers are delicately poised just five points adrift of fourth spot and with one defeat in the League since mid-December, they come into Monday's match in high spirits.
We asked Andy Neild of the Lancashire Evening News for a Rovers
perspective ahead of Monday's big game. Read on for his verdict
on the prospect of European football, the Hughes effect, a quiet
January and the emergence of some key players.
STORY SO FAR
"I think that they have done very well this season and in fact are probably overachieving so far in terms of the resources compared with the other clubs around them. Hughes hasn't spend a great deal of money in the summer or in January so to be where they are in the league is a phenomenal achievement.
"Europe is still very much on the agenda. I don't think the players or staff have ruled out creeping into fourth spot, although that will be a tall order. Speaking to one of the players earlier in the week, he said that anything less than sixth would be a disappointment - so they are certainly focused on Europe and if they could do it that would be a third successive year qualifying for the Uefa Cup - a massive achievement.
"We are seven unbeaten in the league at the moment, which is no mean feat. It is a very difficult league to string results together so to do that is a great effort. I think the manager will admit they perhaps haven't played at their peak during that run, so to be picking up results without necessarily playing to your best is a good sign."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"It was hugely important that Mark Hughes stayed with Blackburn. He has been a massive part of the success here since he arrived. When he got here the club were headed for the Championship and relegation was on the cards. He steadied the ship pretty quickly and has built on strong foundations and now they are pushing for Europe. It was vital he stayed. Signing a new contract at the end of November was good so the fans are positive about the future."
"It was quiet in January but going back to the summer, Roque Santa Cruz came in and he has probably been the player of the season so far. To come into this country and score 15 goals in all competitions is a great return. The one big question mark was his goals record when he arrived - I don't think he had been too prolific for Bayern - so one or two fans were worried but he has come in and proved the doubters wrong by reaching 15 and now he has his eyes on 20 plus."
BOY MOST LIKELY
"David Bentley I think has benefited from having a manager that believes in him and has had the chance to play regularly in the Premier League. As a result he has grown in confidence and his performances have improved greatly over the last 18 months or so. He has an air about him that excites the fans and he is making things happen on the pitch. He has got five assists this season and chipped in with seven or eight goals too. He is looking the real deal."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"Its fair to say that both Morten Gamst Pederson and Benni McCarthy have not hit the levels that they did last season. Benni for example hit 24 goals and was second top scorer in the league. It hasn't quite happened for him this time around. He started the season poorly and then he got dropped for a while, then came back with a bit of a bang but the goals have dried up again. Same can be said for Pederson because he hasn't scored since the back end of last season."
"We have a bit of a selection problem ahead of the match on Monday. Chris Samba, David Dunn and Pederson are all suspended, while the skipper Ryan Nelson is struggling with injury. Andre Ooijer and Steven Reid were both pulled out of internationals so there is a doubt about them. Finally Matt Derbyshire is about to become a father any day so he could well get the call as well. We could be missing seven players. Hughes will go with a cautious game plan and I would be surprised to see a five-man midfield keeping it as tight as possible. Hopefully we can grab something on the break."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"The title could go either way. I have been surprised by Arsenal and I have to admit after the departure of Henry I thought it might take a while to get over that and re-adjust but they have done it very well. Adebayor has filled the Frenchman's boots very well, and brings a different threat."