A first-half hat-trick from Sam Szmodics helped Blackburn Rovers come from behind twice against Cambridge United, eventually running out 5-2 winners.

Jon Dahl Tomasson's side are safely through to the fourth round of the FA Cup but it was not plain sailing against League One opposition. Cambridge twice took the lead, exposing Rovers' struggles from set-pieces and balls into the box.

Jack Lankaster scored a brilliant opener, curling in after the defence had failed to clear their lines. Szmodics finished off a great team move to get the equaliser but that was a temporary reprieve.

Three minutes later and Sullay Kaikai swept home after being left unmarked in the box, six yards out. Rovers didn't win the header at the back post and the striker was left totally alone to send 1,600 away fans barmy.

But Szmodics once again bailed Rovers out of their hole. The forward netted number 18 and 19 of the season before half-time.

His second was a great finish from a tight angle after being fed by Sigurdsson, before he met Callum Brittain's cross to volley in from six yards.

The second half was far more comfortable, with Rovers finally putting the game to bed with Arnor Sigurdsson's close-range finish. Harry Leonard came off the bench to head in a fifth and secure Rovers' route into the fourth round for a second year under Tomasson.

This was the first meeting between the two sides for 20 years and another opportunity for Tomasson's side to enjoy some fun in the cup.

Whilst the league form has not been sparkling of late, Rovers' best memories in 2023 came in the FA Cup, beating Leicester City and almost reaching the semi-finals.

With that late in mind, the head coach named a very strong side, with only two alterations to the team. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the inclusion of top-scorer Szmodics. Thank god he did.

Tomasson had admitted in his pre-match press conference that Cambridge would target Rovers from set-pieces and with balls into the box. His predictions were correct though that clearly didn't give him with the ability to prevent it from happening.

Only six minutes played and the League One side had a shock lead. A routine corner kick wasn't cleared properly, it bounced around the box and Lankaster curled the ball beautifully into the top corner.

A nightmare start for a Rovers side under pressure. After the decision to loan out captain Lewis Travis on Friday, sympathy was in short supply from the fan base and an embarrassing cup upset would not have helped the mood around Ewood Park.

Fortunately, Rovers have the Championship's top-scorer. If 16 league goals weren't enough, Szmodics began his campaign to claim the FA Cup golden boot too.

The forward equalised on 22 minutes with a first-time finish, swept into the corner. Credit to Hayden Carter for his role in the goal, driving forward and then threading the ball into Szmodics' path to finish.

Relief around Ewood Park but not for long. Only three minutes had passed and more generous defending gave Cambridge the lead again.

A simple cross into the box wasn't dealt with at the back post and was nodded back to an unmarked Kaikai to sweep home. Harry Pickering didn't cover himself in glory, failing to win the header, but the marking in the centre was equally poor.

Rovers rallied and a bonkers first half had a fourth goal shortly after. The visitors turned possession over in their own third and Arnor Sigurdsson fed Szmodics to finish from a tight angle for 2-2.

Having started the game so brightly, Neil Harris' side were desperate for the half-time break. They'd put so much into the opening 45 minutes but fell behind in first-half stoppage time.

Brittain's cross found Szmodics somehow unmarked on the six-yard box and he volleyed Rovers ahead for the first time. It marked the forward's first hat-trick since joining the club and his 19th of the season.

Rovers came out quickly at the start of the second half, intent to kill the game off early. Andrew Moran hit the bar after good work from Sigurdsson, who cut the ball back from the byline.

Sigurdsson then tried his luck from the edge of the box but he was thwarted by an excellent save from Jack Stevens. It was one-way traffic but without a two-goal buffer, the back door was still open for Cambridge to nab a leveller.

But with 25 minutes to go, Rovers finally got that breathing room. Sigurdsson fired in at the near post after a scramble in the box, with Carter putting it on a plate for the Icelandic international.

There could have been more Rovers goals soon after, had it not been for a bad miss from substitute Harry Leonard, somehow turning Szmodics' brilliant cross wide.

But the striker made amends shortly after, heading in Pickering's cross to get himself up and running for 2024. More big chances came and went, with Szmodics hitting the post and Stevens doing well to deny Sigurdsson from close range.

So a scare for Rovers but not an upset. They will find out their next opponents on Monday evening with the tie set to be played at the end of the month.