Monday, March 17, 2008

Second city salvation?

Birmingham 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Only time will tell quite how precious Michael Owen's equalising goal was tonight, but right now it certainly feels very precious indeed.

Had we lost, the despondency of players and fans would have deepened further. The point is not just a point gained, but two denied to one of our closest relegation rivals, whom we've managed to keep at arm's length. In truth, though, with a little more fortune in front of goal and the in-form Maik Taylor indisposed, it could have been even better.

Not that a win looked likely at half-time. Deprived of the services of Damien Duff and James Milner through injury, Kevin Keegan opted to leave Charles N'Zogbia on the bench, but rather than playing a wingless four across midfield, he plumped for a characteristically cavalier front three of Owen, Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins. But for the first half it was a chemistry experiment in which the three explosive elements were failing to react with each other. Instead, after a moderately promising opening five minutes, Birmingham seized the initiative and had the bulk of the efforts on goal.

Mikael Forssell fired just wide of the post and Rahdi Jaidi headed wide from a corner, but most dangerous was James McFadden, the Blues' recent capture from Everton, who couldn't have made Abdoulaye Faye look more clownish if he'd handed him some big shoes, a red nose and a squirty flower. The Scot already had a shot deflected just wide by Habib Beye by the time he gave his side the lead, escaping Faye's "attentions" (if it isn't against the trades description act to refer to them as such) with ease and finishing calmly past Steve Harper.

Fabrice Muamba might not be Patrick Vieira in his prime, but he certainly looked like it up against Joey Barton, who was, even by his own remarkable standards, fucking useless. Just do everyone a favour, Joey, and plead guilty.

Owen fired a shot narrowly over from distance, but the closest we actually came to scoring before the break was Stephen Kelly's admirably inventive attempt at an own goal. Unfortunately for us, Taylor was on hand to collect his sliced volley at the second attempt.

Not that a seachange was evident immediately after the interval, either. We started sloppily, and were thankful to Harper for a couple of smart interventions at the feet of onrushing strikers before Owen popped up at the other end to haul us onto level terms. Undeterred by being brilliantly denied by Taylor when six yards out just minutes earlier, Owen reacted like Viduka spying the last pasty in the shop, darting between two defenders to prod the ball home when the Brum 'keeper could only parry Martins' shot.

Suddenly all guns were blazing and Birmingham were in danger of being torn apart. Martins was terrifying their back line with his pace, Owen was finding space and causing problems in an unfamiliar deeper right-hand-side role and even Viduka - having one of his turning-circle-like-an-articulated-lorry nights - started holding the ball up. With Faye uncertainty personified, Harper could never relax completely, but it was his opposite number who was seeing all the action, pushing venomous shots from Jose Enrique and Martins round the post.

And amidst all the endeavour and drama, there was a moment of pure farce - and it was an opposition player who was responsible for it. The ball was lobbed up, and with Viduka ambling back from an offside position, Liam Ridgewell gathered it in like a rugby full-back calling a mark. The flag was duly raised, but unfortunately for Ridgewell, Viduka had been making no effort to collect the pass and so the decision was handball.

Keegan's decision to introduce N'Zogbia for the last ten minutes in place of the visibly upset Martins baffled the travelling fans - after all, hammering the ball downfield for the Nigerian to rampage through the Brum back line had been by far our best form of defence - but, despite inviting pressure, we hung on for the point we more than deserved anyway.

So there you have it: not the win we were craving, but for the first time in weeks, we're looking up at the way out rather than staring mournfully down at the abyss below. Until Saturday, at least.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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