Roque times

I REALISE that human perception of time is flexible, that seconds can seem like hours, and vice versa. This is clear to me every time I travel on the 192 late bus between central Manchester and Carpet Right in Hazel Grove, a journey packed with the world’s human curiosities, which lasts around 45 minutes and yet seems to go on for about three-and-a-half days.

One of my favourite novels is The House Of Sleep by Jonathan Coe, which centres on the misunderstandings created by a narcolepsy sufferer’s perception of a series of events at university. There’s an epigram at the front, taken from Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel The Echoing Grove:

‘I do get confused about time. If one loses one’s emotional focus’ – she stopped, struggled, went on huskily – ‘that’s what happens. Aeons – split seconds – they interchange. One gets outside the usual way of counting.’

Still. Is it really only three years ago that Roque Santa Cruz scored 23 goals in a season for Blackburn, leading to suggestions that both Manchester clubs wanted to sign him? And is it really less than two years since City ended a lengthy pursuit of the striker by paying Blackburn £17million to sign him? It seems much, much longer.

Injuries, loss of form and lack of games have combined to leave Santa Cruz without a goal for almost a year. At the start of the season, he would have missed out on a place in City’s 25-man Premier League squad had Robinho’s late move to AC Milan not created an extra space. Even so, Santa Cruz still missed the cut for their Europa League squad.

And so when the January transfer window opened, a loan move back to Blackburn must have seemed like a good idea. Injuries, though, have held him back. He picked up a groin problem in an FA Cup defeat at Aston Villa last month, then aggravated it in a goalless draw against Newcastle two weeks ago.

Blackburn played Villa again yesterday, for the ninth time in less than 18 months. (Four Premier League games, three Carling Cup matches and two FA Cup ties. They must be sick of the sight of each other.) But any hopes Santa Cruz might have had of ending his goalless run will have died when he saw the team sheet – even though he was in the starting line-up.

That was because manager Steve Kean had decided to field four defenders and three defensive midfielders, in order to frustrate Villa. How such a set-up was supposed to create chances for Santa Cruz was unclear before the start, and became no more obvious during the afternoon. The striker could have been forgiven for thinking he would need a megaphone to communicate with his team-mates.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t score. Indeed, he barely touched the ball before he was substituted after 63 minutes with Blackburn 2-0 down, and on their way to a 4-1 defeat.

The Paraguay international has faced more testing periods in his career than this. More testing, even, than the serious knee injury that kept of action for nine months and almost forced him to miss the 2006 World Cup.

Whenever Santa Cruz needs to get a bit of perspective on life, he thinks back to the start of his career at Paraguayan club Olimpia in the late 1990s.

His experiences there were recounted in an extraordinary interview with The People this morning. In it, Santa Cruz recalled how the club president once fired a gun in the players’ sleeping quarters, threatened them with a Kalashnikov when they went to pick up their wages and urinated in their cars if they underperformed.

“Once, we lost a big local derby,” Santa Cruz said. “Afterwards, the president stormed into the dormitory where the players slept and pumped several bullets into the ceiling.”

It makes Venky’s look tame. Blackburn’s Indian owners are trying to maintain a lower profile after an unimpressive start, but the improbable transfer stories keep on coming. This week, it was Robinho’s turn to be linked with a move to Ewood Park. Ronaldinho has already rejected their advances. The way things are going, the only R-word the club should be concerning themselves about right now is relegation.

When Kean replaced Sam Allardyce in December, he tried to play a more expansive game. By and large, it didn’t work, and at the start of the month, Blackburn became the first team to concede four goals to Wigan under Roberto Martinez.

Kean’s response was to tighten things up in midfield, which resulted in an almost unwatchable stalemate against Newcastle. The plan again at Villa was to strangle the life out of the game. It worked – for 49 minutes.

Then Keith Andrews, one of the three defensive midfielders, dallied on the ball inside his own area, allowed Ashley Young to nip in and then hauled him to the floor. Young converted the resulting penalty, and that was that, really.

Worryingly, Kean didn’t seem to have a back-up plan. He said afterwards that he was trying to get a second striker on to give Blackburn a more attacking outlook, but struggled because Villa were putting so much pressure on. However, there were 13 minutes between the first and second Villa goals – time enough, I would have thought, to get another forward on.

Anyway, with Young starting to cause all sorts of problems, Villa took control. Grant Hanley turned a Marc Albrighton cross into his own net, and then Young sent Downing racing away to add a third.

Blackburn did actually start to look quite dangerous in the final 10 minutes, and might have had more to show for it than Nikola Kalinic’s deflected shot. A telling statistic: it was Kalinic’s fifth Premier League goal of the season. It made him Blackburn’s outright leading league scorer. They are not blessed with prolific strikers.

Neither are Villa, which is perhaps part of the reason their league form has also been so ropey this season. But they cut loose yesterday. Within a minute of Kalinic pulling the score back to 3-1, Downing set up his England team-mate Young to score Villa’s fourth. Fabio Capello, watching from the stand, must have been impressed.

It got worse for Rovers when Ryan Nelsen was sent off late on for bringing down Young. Nelsen has had a tough week, having woken up on Tuesday to discover the tragedy of the earthquake that had hit his home city of Christchurch, claiming at least 140 lives. The Blackburn captain’s family are safe, but he had expressed hope that the trip to Villa would provide, in his words, “a fantastic distraction for a couple of hours”.

Villa, whose season has not been a straightforward one, look as if they have finally taken to Gerard Houllier as a manager following some teething troubles. It seems more than a couple of seasons since they looked the most likely candidates to break up the big four and reach the Champions League. But at least they have stopped looking like relegation candidates. It’s a start.

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