Sparky Aims For Wembley
After three successive near-misses, Mark Hughes admits the heat is on for Blackburn Rovers to reach a domestic cup final once again.
Hughes has steered Rovers to the semi-finals of either the FA Cup or Carling Cup in each of his three seasons in the Ewood Park hot-seat, only to see his side stumble at the most painful stage possible to exit a tournament.
Back in 2005, Rovers were second-best to Arsenal in their FA Cup semi-final at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, while Manchester United secured a narrow aggregate victory in their Carling Cup two-legged contest a year later.
And six months ago, Chelsea completed the triple-whammy when Rovers were undeservedly ousted in last season's FA Cup semi-final clash at Old Trafford.
But the experience of April's hard-fought tie, which Rovers went agonisingly close to clinching themselves, has whetted Hughes' for a big afternoon at Wembley.
'We were very close to a final last year when we had a good run in the FA Cup,' said the Rovers boss, ahead of tonight's Carling Cup fourth round clash at Portsmouth, speaking to rovers.co.uk.
'Every season I've been here as manager, we've been involved in a semi-final, so we'd like to go that one step further.'
Rovers last reached a domestic cup final back in 2002, when under manager Graeme Souness they overcame Tottenham 2-1 to lift the Carling Cup.
But they will be just two steps away from a first trip to the new Wembley if they see off Portsmouth at Fratton Park tonight.
That task is easier said than done, however, with Harry Redknapp's side unbeaten at home this season and, in similar vein to Rovers, enjoying a succesful Premier League campaign to date.
But Hughes has revealed that confidence is sky high among his Ewood charges after registering their sixth straight win at Tottenham on Sunday.
He believes the dug-out celebrations following Chris Samba's superb winner at White Hart Lane encapsulates the team-spirit within the Rovers camp.
Hughes added: 'We are flying at the moment. Everyone saw the reaction of the group to Chris Samba's winner at the weekend.
'There was a great atmosphere after the game. The whole squad was jumping up and down in the dressing room singing Let's all do the Samba'. It was a great moment.
'It's easy to create team spirit when you are winning games.
'It's more difficult when you are at the wrong end of it. But, in fairness, when we've had poor starts in recent seasons, we've never lost that spirit.
'There's always been an understanding that we are better than what we've shown - and that we knew we would turn it around in the second half of the season.'
'The difference this year is that we've made a fantastic start. We hope, with the second half of the season to come, that the first half will be a bonus to us.'
With Rovers looking to stretch their run of victories to seven games, Hughes wants to maintain that momentum and not tinker too much with a winning formula.
'The Carling Cup is a competition we would dearly love to progress in,' said the Blackburn manager.
'We were disappointed with the draw, because it's going to be that more difficult for us.
'But that doesn't stop us going to Portsmouth with a view that we want to win the game. We are on a great run and we don't want it to end.
'Obviously, Portsmouth are a big, powerful side and it will be difficult. But we've won six games on the bounce and we'd love to keep that run going.'
Portsmouth are the only English side to inflict defeat on Rovers this season, when they snatched a 1-0 Premier League victory at Ewood Park last month.
Hughes added: 'We were disappointed with that. We did okay in the game, but we conceded the goal and Portsmouth were rock solid.
'They are very difficult to break down once they get a lead and always very capable on the break, so we have to be mindful of that.
'We will go down there and compete and hope they come out and leave gaps for us.'