Birmingham City 2 Crystal Palace 1: Blues reach summit but problems mount

Birmingham leave it late to secure victory but unhappy Blues fans turn on their captain
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The Independent Football

Birmingham City supporters must be scratching their heads after this result. Their team rose to the top of the Championship and remain unbeaten. Yet they flattered to deceive for much of this game - which was won by an injury-time goal from the on-loan Arsenal midfielder Sebastian Larsson - and still struggle to live up to their tag as title favourites. Worse still, they have an expensively assembled squad who are failing to gel, and in Damien Johnson a captain who decided to cast off his armband and jersey after being substituted.

The Northern Ireland midfielder responded to some ironic cheers that followed his manager Steve Bruce's decision to replace him with a striker, Mikael Forssell, on 79 minutes. "He is bitterly disappointed by his actions," said Bruce afterwards. "I'll see him on Monday and the club will make a statement then. In the meanwhile, I will let tempers calm down. I find the action ironic given all that he has done for the club. He has got four player-of-the-year awards."

Birmingham may have come into this game unbeaten, but their title credentials, even this early in the season, had come under scrutiny. Against Crystal Palace, Bruce came up against his former club and the Championship leaders. Meanwhile, victory for the Crystal Palace chairman, Simon Jordan, would surely have brought a wry grin to his face. His relationship with his Birmingham counterparts, David Gold and David Sullivan, remains uneasy. It started four years ago when Jordan was refused entry into the St Andrew's boardroom for not adhering to the dress code.

Crystal Palace took the lead 10 minutes into the game when the midfielder Jobi McAnuff's 20-yard right-footed shot was deflected off Radhi Jaidi. Birmingham were level 13 minutes later. The on-loan Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner was picked out by Mehdi Nafti's pass, and after taking the ball into his path he eased it past Gabor Kiraly in the Crystal Palace goal.

The home side's second-half efforts were a lot more con-vincing, and Birmingham pressed forward for the win. On 72 minutes, however, the home supporters' frustrations at the lack of forward play came through after they booed Bruce for taking off the impressive Bendtner. Seven minutes later and it was Johnson who was substituted to cheers from the crowd, which were partly directed at Bruce for what they perceived as making amends for his earlier substitution.

"I had fifteen to twenty thousand fans berate me for taking off Bendtner," added Bruce. "What they don't understand is that he had a knock in midweek. What he [Johnson] is deeply frustrated with is the reaction of the crowd."

With the game into injury time, and the draw looking favourite, David Dunn created the opportunity for Larsson with some clever footwork. The young Swede neatly finished from within the penalty area with a controlled shot.