Bent fires Blues back into play-off race

THE run has begun.A Darren Bent hat-trick got Town's promotion challenge back on track in an all-round excellent performance by fired-up Ipswich, writes Derek Davis.

THE run has begun.

A Darren Bent hat-trick got Town's promotion challenge back on track in an all-round excellent performance by fired-up Ipswich, writes Derek Davis.

The last time Town beat Walsall they went on to win nine of their next 10 games. With Wimbledon and Watford the next two opponents, just as they were in September, the omens are good and a similar run would secure a play-off place at the very least.

Another important factor back then was securing a couple of loan signings. This time the arrival of Matt Elliott has already looked a shrewd move as Ipswich looked a lot more solid at the back.

Richard Naylor ignored a broken toe to play in central defence alongside Elliott, who made his debut after signing on loan from Leicester City and in doing so became the 400th player to turn out for Ipswich since they turned professional.

He went some way to winning Town hearts with an early goalline clearance to deny a Paul Ritchie header from a corner.

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The former Scotland international tried his luck at the other end but his header was easily taken by James Walker.

After absorbing Walsall's early pressure, where a tanned-looking Paul Merson always looked a handful, Ipswich ended the first half looking strong.

The defence looked solid enough and with Fabian Wilnis and Matt Richards bombing forward the Saddlers started looking a bit stretched in midfield.

Town took advantage with skipper Jim Magilton playing fairly deep but trying to thread balls through.

Jermaine Wright started to get involved more, making a lot of running and linking well with the forwards.

Darren Bent began to be direct with his running and although the well-drilled Walsall back line held firm he was beginning to infiltrate more than they would have liked.

A Wright through ball caught Bent's heel and a couple more balls for him to chase on to went a fraction too long.

One header from the England Under-21 international was blocked and strike partner Dean Bowditch had two bites but Walker was able to get behind the more dangerous second effort.

But Walker's best save of the half came from Tommy Miller, who caught a Wilnis cross nicely on his left foot but the keeper pushed it away at full stretch.

Another Wilnis cross was headed wide by Bowditch, who was full of clever running.

Bowditch was also involved in one of Town's best moves, starting with a wide ball out from Miller to Richards whose cross was met by the young England striker but Walker was able to gather.

Walsall were without Craig Burley, who was not registered in time to play despite agreeing to sign after being released by Preston.

Also missing in midfield was Vinnie Samways, who had failed to get over the flu and was still recovering in his Spanish home.

Former Norwich skipper Neil Emblen was full of confidence after scoring the winner for Walsall against Wimbledon on Saturday but he was pushing his luck when he tried a shot from his own half from the second-half restart.

But it was Ipswich who broke the deadlock three minutes after the break. Bowditch crossed for Wright, whose 20-yard shot was parried by Walker but Bent reacted quickest to scramble the ball in from close range.

Walsall appealed for a penalty claiming Wilnis had used a hand to push the ball away from Gary Birch but none was given.

Seconds later Town conceded a free-kick on their 'D' but the wall held firm and Elliott headed away Steve Corica's shot.

Davis tipped a Merson shot around a post while Corica dragged a shot wide as Walsall tried to respond.

It was in vain. Town broke neatly and Bowditch played a terrific low diagonal ball into Bent's path and he took it in his stride before hitting it low, right-footed from 20 yards inside Walker's left post.

The 19-year-old almost completed his hat-trick a minute later when Richards slipped a good ball into him but his low shot across goal went wide in front of the stand with almost 1,000 travelling Town fans.

The treble came in the last minute when Miller played in Westlake, who got behind the defence to pull the ball back for his fellow former Academy star to turn it in.

Merson went close again following a flowing move by Walsall culminating in Aranalde crossing from the left wing to the far post, but the former England midfielder bundled the ball wide.

Miller was again unfortunate not to score when he burst through midfield but hit a powerful curling shot which thundered back from the crossbar.

One of the newest Scotland recruits played a neat one-two with Richards but again he was thwarted by Walker.

Elliott then showed his strength to shrug off a marker to get on the end of a Magilton corner and bring out a diving save from Walker.

The result, and the display was a perfect riposte after three straight defeats, but it was shame Ipswich could not keep a deserved clean sheet.

Their undoing was a quick, and smartly taken free-kick by Keith Andrews late on, but Bent still had the last word.

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