Gael force knocks the wind out of our sails
Well, we all knew the unbeaten run had to be ended by someone - but did it really have to be Blackburn, the Premier League's basement club (and not without good reason)? An extraordinary match culminated in our first defeat of the season, which saw us exit the League Cup just as things start to get interesting (though, in truth, the presence of Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool in the quarter-final draw suggests our name probably wasn't destined to be on the trophy for the first time this year anyway).
Alan Pardew's team selection was a pre-match talking point, the Silver Fox opting to retain several first-teamers. Mr T and Saylor both missed out with knee-knack and nose-knack respectively, while Obertan Kenobi, Leon O'Best and Raylor were rested. In came French pair HBA and Sylvain Marveaux, Danny Guthrie, James Perch (could Sideshow Bob make him look decent?) and Davide Santon, the latter for his full debut. The bench was a strikingly defender-free zone, featuring Mehdi Abeid, Dan Gosling, Little Big Lad, Peter Lovenkrands and the Lone Ranger (back in the fold) alongside Obertan Kenobi.
For his part, under-fire Rovers manager Steve Kean picked an equally attack-minded side featuring Yakubu and David Goodwillie up front with Morten Gamst Pedersen and Toon target Junior Hoilett on the wings and forward-thinking midfielder Ruben Rochina in the middle. The Spaniard it was who gave the home side an early lead, lashing into the top corner unmarked after full-back Martin Olsson's unchallenged run and pull-back. We might have been wearing orange, but the defence was stood around like lemons.
We almost hit back immediately, Demba Ba belting a shot off the post, and the Senegalese striker later came agonisingly close to touching in Danny Guthrie's low cross-shot at the far post. In sharp contrast to the league game at St James' in which he bagged a hat-trick, nothing was quite going for him.
The balance of play, though, was with Blackburn, who were regularly keeping Tim Krul's gloves warm (if not genuinely extending him). Pedersen, as is his wont, seemed to have raised his game just for our visit.
That pattern continued after the break, until what looked like being the critical passage of play shortly after the hour mark. No sooner had it been confirmed that Ba's luck really was out, Christopher Samba having dragged him to the deck in the penalty area without punishment, than Rovers broke down the other end of the pitch and Krul clipped Rochina just as he'd touched the ball on. The Dutchman was yellow-carded (Rochina having been just about headed away from goal) and then beaten from the spot by ex-Smog Yakubu.
The Silver Fox's go-for-broke introduction of Little Big Lad for Danny Simpson initially promised to reap reward, Obertan Kenobi and Lovenkrands also joining the action soon after. But, as the game drifted into injury time, we still hadn't mustered a single effort on target. That all changed in the 92nd minute, though, Guthrie given time and space to arrow a daisy-cutter inside Mark Bunn's right-hand post from distance.
Merely a consolation goal? With our current doggedness and team spirit, not a bit of it. Our second effort on target came three minutes later, Dreamboat following up Saturday's first goal for the club with an even better dead-ball strike into the top corner that had the Darwen End discoing like mad. A phenomenal comeback by any standards.
And yet half-way through the first period of extra time we found ourselves behind again, Pedersen's long-range free-kick taking a wicked deflection and flying past Krul. But still we refused to be beaten. Obertan Kenobi did what he's done too rarely of late, beating his full-back to drill in a low cross which caused panic in the six-yard area. Referee Robert Madley spotted Rovers substitute Grant Hanley's manhandling of Lovenkrands and the Dane tucked away the resultant penalty.
Lest we heap too much praise on our ex-Man Utd winger, though, he was shockingly culpable for the goal which finally killed us off. A shoot-out was a matter of seconds away when that man Pedersen's free-kick was nodded back across goal by Samba for Gael Givet - supposed to have been tracked by our substitute - to glance the ball over the line. The pulsating contest was brought to a close shortly afterwards, with us finishing on the wrong end of a 4-3 scoreline having been on the right end of one in the previous round.
Alan Pardew insisted we deserved to win the game, and in the circumstances defeat was certainly cruel - but, to be blunt, you can't defend like that or take 92 minutes to muster a shot on target and expect to triumph. A strong team struggled to cope with Blackburn's supposedly modest threat and the lack of defensive cover on the bench is worrying. We missed Saylor's commitment in the centre of defence and, even more crucially, Mr T's minesweeping act in front of the back four. With much sterner tests to come, starting at Stoke on Monday, is our season about to come spectacularly off the rails?
Other reports: BBC, Guardian