West Bromwich Albion 1 Blackburn Rovers 1
West Bromwich Albion suffered a collective attack of stage fright last night as they failed in their mission to vault out of the Premiership's bottom three.
A precious point may yet be significant in their bid to beat the drop but everyone who suffered a second-half soaking at the rain-lashed Hawthorns knew that this nervous performance was two points dropped.
Kieran Richardson's fantastic first-half strike once again gave Bryan Robson's men hope of the three points needed to climb above Norwich City and Crystal Palace into the safety zone. But Brett Emerton's equaliser was like being punched in the guts.
Winded, Albion will find it hard to argue with the result against a spirited, surprisingly skilful Blackburn side.
The first half-hour was particularly horrible to watch. Nervy, scratchy stuff.
Zoltan Gera and Thomas Gaardsoe each got into trouble on the edge of their own box. The danger was averted but it was hardly the sort of thing to settle 25,000 sensitive Black Country stomachs.
The mood might have been a bit lighter had referee Steve Bennett eased the home side's obvious anxieties by answering three first-half penalty appeals.
But Mr Bennett turned down Geoff Horsfield's second-minute tumble over Aaron Mokoena's outstretched foot as readily as he ignored Andy Todd's grapple with Albion skipper Kevin Campbell and a handball shout against Lucan Neill.
All three, with the benefit of hindsight and a TV replay, should have been penalties. But, not only did Albion end up with none, they were further handicapped by Horsfield's yellow card, for alleged diving, which reduced his effectiveness.
Robson, too, rued the referee's leniency.
"You know Blackburn are always going to be very difficult to break down and, overall, they deserved their result," he said. "A lot of anxiousness crept into our play, especially once they scored, which is understandable given the position we're in.
"But, having said that, the referee didn't help us one little bit with two blatant penalty decisions that went against us.
"The foul by Andy Todd on Kevin Campbell was nailed on. And we had another shout when Ronnie Wallwork's shot hit Lucas Neill.
"We never seem to get anything from referees. I don't know why it is but, from the games I've seen on TV, teams who aren't struggling seem to get decisions that go for them.
"As for the one on Geoff Horsfield, I've not seen the replay of it, but he didn't complain and if he did take a tumble then he deserved his booking."
Albion, perhaps still feeling the sting of Saturday's 4-0 defeat at Middlesbrough, were muted in comparison to some of their recent performances. Their attack was limited to Zoltan Gera's low right- foot effort which squeezed just past the post. Richardson did curl in a leftwing corner but Campbell's header was blocked. So too another effort from Gera.
Rovers, despite their reputation of being mere bullies who do not bother with subtle niceties like the ball, carved out a couple of good chances. But Dominic Matteo rose at the near post to head over Morten Gamst Pedersen's penetrative long throw. And it took a great covering header by Gera to clear just when Robbie Savage closed on a Neill cross.
It needed a moment of inspiration to settle those frayed nerves.
Albion got it from the one player on the pitch who looks destined for great things - Richardson.
Horsfield won a free kick when he was brought down five yards outside the box by New Zealander Ryan Nelsen. Richardson stepped up to the plate in style, the young loan signing from Manchester United curling a beautiful left-footed shot into the keeper's top left corner for his first goal at The Hawthorns. Brad Friedel was helpless.
Albion ought to have doubled their lead when Neil Clement fluffed a far post header from Richard Chaplow's corner. Clement then came close to atoning with a powerful, low free-kick bundled away by Friedel at his near post.
But, as long as there was only one goal in it, the home fans had cause to fret, especially when the influential Tugay entered the fray. Their worst fears were realised just past the hour.
Pedersen's superb first touch to Neill's neat ball down the line took out Clement and the Albion defence never recovered. Stretched all over the shop, right-back Martin Albrechtsen was nowhere to be seen when Emerton arrived at the far post to slam his right-foot shot into the roof of the net.
It might have been even worse but Savage could only steer a close-range volley straight at Russell Hoult.
And, when Clement's courageous late attempt to sneak in round the back was also foiled, Albion had to settle for another point.
Scorers: Richardson (31) 1-0; Emerton (64) 1-1.
ALBION (4-4-2): Hoult; Albrechtsen, Gaardsoe, Clement, Robinson; Gera, Wallwork, Richardson, Chaplow (Scimeca, 63); Horsfield (Earnshaw, 79), Campbell (Kanu, 63). Subs: Kuszczak (gk), Moore.
ROVERS (4-4-1-1): Friedel; Neill, Todd, Nelsen, Matteo; Emerton, Savage (Gallagher, 87), Mokoena (Tugay, 55), Pedersen (Thompson, 83); Reid; Stead. Subs: Enckelman (gk), Flitcroft.
Referee: S Bennett (Orpington, Kent). Bookings: Albion - Horsfield (diving), Robinson (dissent); Rovers (Matteo (foul), Pedersen (foul), Neill (dissent), Todd (foul).
Albion man of the match: Kieran Richardson - touch of class.