Sunday, July 29, 2007

Blackburn Rovers

Manager: Mark Hughes

Key Arrivals: Maceo Rigters, Roque Santa Cruz

Key Departures: Michael Gray, Andy Todd

Key Returning Players: David Bentley, Matt Derbyshire, David Dunn, Brett Emerton, Brad Friedel, Paul Gallagher, Stephane Henchoz, Zurab Khizanishvili, Benni McCarthy, Aaron Mokoena, Ryan Nelsen, Andre Ooijer, Morten Gamst Pedersen, Steven Reid, Jason Roberts, Christopher Samba, Robbie Savage, Tugay, Stephen Warnock

Performance Last Season: Blackburn finished 10th last season with 52 points. They were 2 points ahead of Villa and 2 points behind Portsmouth. They had a good FA Cup run, losing out to Chelsea in the semi-finals. They also found some joy in the UEFA Cup before Bayer Leverkusen knocked them out. Overall it was an inconsistent season though, one week the squad looked ready to challenge for a European spot, the next week they looked lucky not to be in a relegation battle.

Injuries certainly took their toll, and the first choice strike partnership of McCarthy and Roberts was seldom on the pitch together. Ryan Nelson, who had been a rock at the centre of the defence, only played in 12 league matches. Mark Hughes will certainly hope to keep the team healthier in the coming season. The club has shown continuous improvement under his leadership, and consistency will be his next goal.

Strengths: Although the squad is a little on the small side, Blackburn have quality from top to bottom. For me, their biggest strength is at keeper, where Brad Freidel has been one of the top keepers in all of Europe for several seasons now. The giant American does not seem to have any weaknesses himself, and this can be demonstrated by his fellow players confidence in his abilities.

Weaknesses: The midfield looks to be a big concern, particular if there are any injuries. Emerton looks to have settled in at right back, which leaves them with no cover for Bentley and Pedersen on the wings. Savage and Reid are coming off of injuries while David Dunn can hardly be counted on to make more than a handful of appearances. Tugay had another solid season, but at 36 one has to wonder how much longer he will be able to continue.

If all goes right: Things have started to go right early, as Rovers have managed to qualify for the 2nd round of the UEFA Cup through the Intertoto Cup. If there are no injuries and players such as Derbyshire and Bentley continue to develop Blackburn should be in the mix for a UEFA Cup spot.

If all goes wrong: As stated above, even one injury in the midfield could wreak havoc on Mark Hughes squad and leave them languishing in the bottom half of the table. Hughes saved them from relegation two seasons ago and has done a wonderful job cleaning up the mess that Souness left behind, so they are unlikely to be fighting for survival, barring an absolute disaster

My Prediction: Inconsistency will continue to be a problem, and another UEFA Cup run could stretch the small squad. I think they will finish 10th in a repeat of last season. This is a team that will beat Manchester United one week and lose to Derby the next. The supporters will be exasperated, but another cup run, maybe even a trophy, will have them happy when all is done and dusted.

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