Football: Crewe Alexandra 0 Birmingham City 0 - Crewe equal to Birmingham challenge

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The Independent Online
THE WAY the First Division table stands after yesterday's stalemate at Gresty Road, Birmingham's ambition of putting Old Trafford, Highbury and a Villa Park derby on next season's schedule appears far from fanciful, whereas Crewe look bound for Colchester, Cambridge and Wigan.

Yet it would have been hard to put a cigarette paper between the sides in an entertaining contest which belied its barren conclusion. For while Birmingham cemented their position in the play-off zone by stretching their unbeaten run to eight matches, Crewe played with rare enterprise for a side struggling against relegation and twice struck the woodwork.

Had they won, Birmingham would have gone into third place, above Bradford and two points behind second-placed Ipswich, who are in an automatic promotion spot. Well before the end, however, they seemed to settle for a draw against a Crewe team who showed a hitherto unseen appetite for the fray of the game as well as their customary measured style.

Trevor Francis, the Birmingham manager, had challenged his team to confirm a play-off place by the end of Easter Monday's visit by Watford. He believed four points would suffice, but if the players were tempted to see Crewe as providing easy pickings they were swiftly disabused of such notions.

Despite, or perhaps because of fielding two newcomers, Birmingham struggled to impose themselves. Not that David Holdsworth, a pounds 1m defender from Sheffield United, or Lee Bradbury, the loan striker from Crystal Palace who once cost Manchester City pounds 3m, played badly.

Holdsworth, in fact, enjoyed an assured debut alongside Birmingham's best player on the day, Michael Johnson, while Bradbury toiled manfully up front without looking like scoring. But without his injured leading scorers, Dele Adebola and Paul Furlong, Francis had little scoring threat.

The confidence with which Crewe approached the task was especially praiseworthy considering that they had lost both their previous fixtures by 3-0. Danny Murphy, back at the club on loan from Liverpool, played just off the pacy Rodney Jack, and Birmingham were troubled by the former's ability to feed passes to the West Indian striker.

Crewe's best opportunities both came in the first half. After 16 minutes, Mark Rivers' shot from 16 yards shook a post and rebounded obligingly for Shaun Smith, only for Holdsworth to block his goalbound follow-up. Shortly before half-time, Phil Charnock struck the same post.

Birmingham were strongest down their right flank, where Jon McCarthy linked well with Gary Rowett. Bradbury exploited a mistake by Chris Lightfoot but then rolled his pass behind with McCarthy and Peter Ndlovu in scoring positions. Rowett also sliced horribly wide after McCarthy's clever chipped pass played him in.

David Wright wasted Crewe's best opening of the second half, before late Birmingham pressure saw Rowett and Bryan Hughes force flying saves from Jason Kearton. "It's all psychology between now and the end of the season," said Crewe's manager, Dario Gradi, while Francis rued "two points lost".

Crewe Alexandra (4-3-3): Kearton; D Wright, Lightfoot, Walton, Smith; J Wright, Charnock, S Johnson; Rivers, Jack, Murphy. Substitutes not used: Macauley, Newell, Street.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Poole; Rowett, Holdsworth, M Johnson, Charlton; McCarthy (Forster, 76), Hughes, O'Connor (Robinson, 66), Grainger; Bradbury (Forinton, 85), Ndlovu.

Referee: D Pugh (The Wirral).