FULL-TIME: Sheffield Wednesday 3 Blackburn Rovers 3
ROVERS missed a massive chance to move within two points of the play-offs as they let a two-goal lead slip through their grasp on a dramatic afternoon at an emotionally charged Hillsborough.
Gary Bowyer’s side looked to be heading for a third straight league victory for the first time in a single season since January 2008 when top-scorer Jordan Rhodes, Craig Conway and Michael Keane gave them a commanding 3-1 half-time advantage.
But they were made to pay for failing to build on their advantage in the second half as Atdhe Nuhiu bagged a brace – with his second goal coming four-and-a-half-minutes into injury-time – to earn Wednesday a point.
It is a point that leaves Rovers, who are now unbeaten in eight games, four points off sixth-placed Brighton & Hove Albion with four matches of the season to play, the first of which comes at home to relegation-threatened Yeovil Town on Good Friday.
The afternoon started on a poignant note with an impeccably observed minute’s silence to remember the 96 Liverpool supporters who lost their lives at the Hillsborough disaster 25 years ago.
After the moving silence Rovers boss Bowyer, who was in the Nottingham Forest end as a fan on that fateful day on April 15, 1989, joined his Owls counterpart Stuart Gray in picking up the wreaths they had placed in the centre circle and laid them in front of the Leppings Lane end, where the 96 died and hundreds others were injured.
One the action got under way it was unchanged Rovers who showed first as a quick pass from Keane found Lee Williamson, who laid the ball back for centre-midfield partner Jason Lowe to drag past the far post from 20 yards out.
Former Wednesday defender Tommy Spurr also failed to make a telling connection when a free kick found its way to him on the far side of the box in the 15th minute.
But, comically, Miguel Llera failed to clear the left-back’s scuffed attempt and Rhodes nipped in to side-step Chris Kirkland and tap the ball into the empty net from virtually on the goal-line.
It was the striker’s 24th goal of the campaign – and he won’t get an easier one.
The Owls had a golden opportunity to equalise four minutes later when Michail Antonio latched on to an under-hit headed clearance.
The livewire winger threaded the ball through to Nuhiu and the recalled targetman – in for the ineligible Leon Best, who was unable to play against his parent club – evaded Matt Kilgallon’s challenge before forcing a fine save out of Paul Robinson.
In contrast Robinson’s opposite number looked shaky in the scrappy opening stages with Kirkland spilling a Cairney free kick at the feet of Rhodes, who side-footed straight at the prone Wednesday goalkeeper.
Then it was the turn of Robinson to be called into action, half-an-hour in, as he made a sensational one-handed stop to turn Antonio’s goal-bound header over the bar from point-blank range.
But from the resulting corner Antonio flicked the ball to the back post where Lewis Buxton forced it home to restore parity.
Six minutes later, however, Rovers were back in front as a long punt forward from Robinson was knocked on by Rudy Gestede to Rhodes, who in turn played the ball back to Conway.
The winger had plenty to do.
But he made what came next look easy as he slipped inside on to his right foot and fired a low 30-yard drive past Kirkland’s despairing dive and into the bottom corner.
It was Conway’s fourth goal for the club since his bargain £100,000 January deadline day move from Cardiff City – all of which have come away from Ewood Park.
And it was another new addition who extended Rovers’ advantage two minutes before the break.
Cairney spread the ball out wide to Lowe who, having moments earlier made a crucial block in his own area, swung over a superb first-time cross into the heart of the box that deserved a goal.
And it got one as the unmarked Keane sent a flying header past Kirkland to notch his second goal for the club after signing on loan from Manchester United.
On a difficult pitch that made passing on the ground difficult, Rovers were right to go direct.
And, after Rhodes had a goal correctly ruled out for offside, it was a from a booming Robinson free kick that Gestede looped a header just over the bar at the start of the second half.
A clever Gestede flick then played strike-partner Rhodes in on goal.
But Kirkland spread himself to prevent Rhodes from nudging the ball past him.
Rhodes kept the ball alive, however, and after playing it across the six-yard box Gestede saw his close-range shot blocked away.
Then it was the turn of Rovers to survive a scare as Antonio raced away down the right and drove over a cross-shot which came back off the bar to substitute Caolan Lavery, who could not beat Robinson with the rebound.
But Robinson was beaten by Nuhiu in the 72nd minute.
The dangerous Antonio was the creator as he outstripped Keane down the left before lashing over a cross which Robinson palmed away as far as Nuhiu, who stabbed the ball home.
Rovers should have been out of sight.
But they were given another chance to seal the contest four minutes from time when good closing down by Conway resulted in Rhodes going clean through.
But instead of squaring to the better-placed Gestede, he dragged his shot into the side-netting.
It proved the defining moment of the match.
As in the fifth minute of injury-time Nuhiu crashed the ball home after Wednesday had seemingly being thwarted by some desperate and heroic defending.
And it could have got worse for Rovers had Robinson not denied the giant targetman a hat-trick with virtually the last kick of the game.
Wednesday: Kirkland, Buxton, Onyewu, Llera, Mattock (Helan 59), Hutchinson (Afobe 79), Antonio, Palmer (Lavery 59), Lee, Maguire, Nuhiu. Subs not used: Martinez, Johnson, Coke, Taylor.
Booked: Llera, Hutchinson, Nuhiu, Afobe.
Goals: Buxton 30, Nuhiu 72, 90.
Rovers: Robinson, Keane, Hanley, Kilgallon, Spurr, Cairney, Lowe, Williamson, Conway, Gestede, Rhodes (Varney 90). Subs not used: Eastwood, Kane, King, Olsson, Taylor, Feeney.
Booked: Hanley, Williamson, Gestede, Rhodes.
Goals: Rhodes 15, Conway 36, Keane 43.
Referee: Fred Graham.
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