Alex Mcleish's gamble of fielding nine understudies reaped a rich dividend when Birmingham City scored three times in four minutes to leave Milton Keynes Dons facing a hopeless task to reach the fourth round of the Carling Cup at St Andrew's last night.
Alexander Hleb, Nikola Zigic and Craig Gardner all scored in rapid succession, although the Dons, lying fourth in League One and making their first visit to a Premier League ground, were a credit to the English game's youngest manager, 30-year-old Karl Robinson, and deserved their late reply by Aaron Wilbraham.
McLeish was especially pleased to see Hleb, the Belarussian who is on a season-long loan from Barcelona, and Serbia striker Zigic, his £6m summer signing, open their accounts for Birmingham. "It was a wee change in terms of our scoring exploits," the Birmingham manager said. "In that spell we were really clinical. Zigic is adjusting to the pace of the game here. It's very quick, and even the aerial stuff, for a guy who is 6ft 8in, is new to him."
Some of the performances, notably that of Chilean winger Jean Beausejour, gave McLeish "food for thought" with regard to his selection plans for the visit of Wigan at the weekend. Beausejour is natural wide player, able to beat his man on the outside and with an accurate line in crosses, Birmingham's first two goals stemming from his wiles on the left.
Robinson was magnanimous in defeat, hailing the "genius" of Hleb and noting: "That's why he has played for Arsenal and Barcelona." The Dons' manager added: "My team showed a passion and their love for the game shone through, but we had chances and didn't take them whereas they took theirs. That's why they're in the Premier League. But if we can play as well as that against a team from the top division, we can cause a lot of damage at our level."
The Dons had looked comfortable until midway through the first half. Then Birmingham midfielder Michel pulled up injured, to be replaced by Gardner, and within a minute the goal rush had begun. Gardner's first touch fed Beausejour on the edge of the penalty area, from where he spotted Hleb near the opposite angle of the box. A sliderule pass invited an equally precise finish, Hleb's first goal in English football since 2007.
Two minutes later, Beausejour's cross reached the six-yard area, where Zigic stole in behind the centre-backs to side-foot home. Two minutes later the Dons' collapse accelerated when Gardner was given time and space before finding the right-hand corner of the net with a left-footed shot from 20 yards.
The Dons, backed by 1,200 followers, secured the goal their approach merited when Wilbraham's angled shot beat Maik Taylor with 10 minutes remaining.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Taylor; Parnaby, Johnson , Jiranek, Murphy; Fahey, Michel (Gardner, 23), Hleb (Phillips, 66), Beausejour (Valles, 58); Derbyshire, Zigic. Substitutes not used Foster (gk), Ridgewell, Jerome, Redmond.
MK Dons (4-4-1-1): Martin; Woodards, O'Hanlon (Mackenzie, h-t), Doumbe, Lewington; Guy, Carrington, Leven, Balanta (Ibehre, 29); Chadwick; Easter (Wilbraham, 64). Substitutes not used Searle (gk), Baldock, Howell, Chicksen.
Man of the match Gardner
Referee S Attwell (S Yorkshire)
Match rating 7/10.