Blackburn’s second tier status is on a knife-edge. A win will not be enough if Nottingham Forest and Birmingham match their result, yet they could also draw and theoretically even lose and still stay up.
It would be simplistic to say Sunday will define the club’s long-term future, because failings over the last five years, on and off the field, have done a lot of the damage. However, with the club in debt whilst possessing an aging squad offering little re-sale value, Championship status is perhaps the only thing that makes the club an attractive proposition to potential buyers.
Opponents Brentford have their own incentives to win Sunday’s match, even if they are not as grand. The Bees could match last season’s points tally of 65 with a draw, or beat it with a win. That progression looks even more impressive, considering how much stronger the top six or seven teams have been this year compared to last.
One of those is West London rivals Fulham, with whom Brentford drew 1-1 last time out, with head coach Dean Smith showing some tactical acumen. Goalkeeper Daniel Bentley saved Tom Cairney’s penalty and bailed them out in a difficult first half which ended level. In the second half, he pushed Nico Yennaris further up the pitch to harry Stefan Johansen, bringing on Zain Westbrooke to deny space for Cairney.
Though Bentley had to make a couple more saves after the break, the Bees were not dominated in the same way as Florian Jozefzoon and Lasse Vibe coming close. The latter has scored 13 goals in 2017 in a Bees side that has netted 50 in all forms since Auld Lang Syne.
The attacking trio of Jota, Vibe and Sergi Canos looks very strong, but Brentford’s threat stems from playing out from the back quickly. Blackburn’s best chance of stifling their build-up play may be to start three forwards who are willing to work hard and close down.
That is what Tony Mowbray did in last week’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa. He employed a 3-4-3 system with Elliott Bennett on the left of the front three, putting in five challenges. Danny Graham and Sam Gallagher are also capable of putting a shift in and could have just as an important role without the ball as with it. Charlie Mulgrew is back in the team at centre-back and the ex-Celtic man’s composure and knowhow can make a difference.
Blackburn have become more organized, combative and hardworking under Mowbray. They have conceded just once in their last four games and their last two opponents, Wolves and Aston Villa, have mustered only three shots on target combined.
It is unlikely that Brentford will be equally bereft of ideas and invention as the Midlanders. Unlike a lot of other teams, their talented, young squad has tended to thrive when there has been nothing to play for, as we saw at the end of last season as well as this one.
Should Blackburn be chasing a goal come the second half, the fluency of Brentford’s play might come to the fore.
The Football Lab’s Verdict: 2-1