By Chris Harris
Some pretty good judges have been touting Tottenham for a top-four place this season - Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho among them. But while Spurs and their fellow big spenders hog the headlines, the likes of Blackburn are looking to slip under the radar and up the league table.
Mark Hughes has been less active but arguably more canny in the transfer market than many of his rivals. With a handful of buys in January, followed by the signing of Roque Santa Cruz this summer, Hughes has quietly assembled a squad with the quality and strength in depth to challenge for a Uefa Cup place - and maybe even more.
Rovers got up and running on the opening weekend of the Premier League season with a 2-1 win at Middlesbrough, thanks to a goal apiece from substitutes Santa Cruz and Matt Derbyshire. Ewood Park will be brimming with expectation when Arsenal test Blackburn's credentials on Sunday afternoon.
We spoke to Jason Kayley of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph to get a Blackburn perspective ahead of the game. Read on for his views on Blackburn's new boys, Hughes' burgeoning reputation, the tactical approach he expects from Rovers this weekend and the danger that Arsenal still pose without Thierry Henry.
THE STORY SO FAR
"Mark Hughes doesn't put too much emphasis on pre-season matches, everyone gets a run-out, so one or two of the results were up and down. I think they showed signs of ring-rustiness in the first half against Boro but you saw the impact Roque Santa Cruz and Derbyshire made when they came on. Blackburn look a lot more solid with more strength in depth. I don't see them challenging the top four, not just yet, but I don't think a top-six place is beyond them with the team and squad they've got. Blackburn have got a core of 16 to 20 excellent players and I don't think the Uefa Cup will be a problem. An exceptional season would be to challenge for the top four but Hughes has got a really solid unit, everyone knows their job and everybody works for the team. I really think this is the best squad Mark Hughes has had at his disposal."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"Santa Cruz has really fired the imagination of the fans for the new season. He's made an instant impact. He's good on the ball for a big chap. He's just what Rovers needed, he's a target man. He's good in the air, as you saw against Middlesbrough, but he's incredibly good on the deck too. He gives another dimension to Blackburn's attacking play."
"Hughes did a lot of shopping in January with the likes of Chris Samba coming in. He was a bit inactive during the summer break but brought in Santa Cruz. I think the chairman said they'd made about 10 signings since the start of the year. The likes of Samba, David Dunn and Stephen Warnock have all had seven months to build up to the new Premiership season. They've all hit the ground running, they've all gelled into a unit and it's only really Santa Cruz who needs to find his feet a little bit. Hughes is getting a reputation for unearthing diamonds. No one had heard of Ryan Nelsen but he's been the subject of a lot of interest. The likes of Samba too, and now Santa Cruz. Three and a half million for a European Cup winner from not long ago is an absolutely fantastic deal for Blackburn. If he can pay that back this season then he will make an awesome partnership with McCarthy for not much money when you look at the transfer fees which have been thrown about this year."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"If you look at the pre-season odds it's always the likes of Newcastle, Spurs, West Ham, the clubs who have spent big money, whose odds are shorter. The likes of Everton and Blackburn get shoved to one side but they've both strengthened well, both have strong and solid squads and both teams can upset the big boys. Maybe it's a good thing that Blackburn are out of the limelight because they can go about their business quietly and maybe keep bigger teams away from their players."
"I think Hughes will be more attacking than he was when Arsenal won 2-0 at Ewood Park in January. It was a big surprise that Blackburn didn't go for the jugular that day, especially when Arsenal went down to 10 men so early on. I don't think he'll make the same mistake twice. Both teams are much changed, Arsenal are without Henry but they've already shown that they can't be underestimated. Rovers have got the players, they've got the flair with the likes of Arsenal old boy David Bentley, who has really come to the fore. David Dunn too, and Benni McCarthy should be back in the squad. McCarthy suffered concussion in the game against Middlesbrough but he's expected to be fit. Steven Reid is recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury and it's still too soon for him but otherwise Hughes has a nice selection headache."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"They always play good football. The sky is the limit for Fabregas and I hope he stays in English football because he is an awesome player. I think the jury is out on Eduardo but Sagna looks a good player. Wenger is no mug, he doesn't spend money on duff players and Sagna looks like quality. Arsenal are an exciting team, a young team, and it will be interesting to see how the young boys fit into the side. Henry is obviously a big loss but it gives the likes of Eduardo and Adebayor the chance to fill his boots and become Arsenal legends in their own right. I think the title might be out of their grasp this season but it will be interesting to see how the young boys come along in the next few years."