Pitt slows Birmingham's advance on play-offs

Birmingham City 1 Portsmouth 1
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The Independent Football

Birmingham returned to the First Division play-off zone yesterday but paid for a poor performance when Portsmouth's late strike denied them victory at St Andrews.

Steve Bruce, the Birmingham manager, blamed the referee rather than his players' lack of dynamism, saying Howard Webb had denied them two penalties. "They were ludicrous decisions," he said. "It is these kind of decisions which cost the likes of me my job."

Nevertheless Portsmouth dominated for long periods with Gary O'Neil hitting the woodwork before the midfielder Couurtney Pitt volleyed past the goalkeeper Nico Vaesen with seven minutes left. Birmingham, unbeaten in seven games, were unconvincing after taking an early lead through Stern John but moved up to sixth place on goal difference.

John had given his side the perfect start inside the opening two minutes with his sixth goal since signing from Nottingham Forest. Tommy Mooney found himself in space on the left wing and his dangerous cross into the box was turned past the goalkeeper Dave Beasant by the alert Trinidad and Tobago international.

Portsmouth tried to respond immediately. The Croatian Robert Prosinecki curled a long-range effort and the City defender Michael Johnson was forced into an urgent clearance by Kevin Harper's delivery into the area after 10 minutes. Vaesen then did well to punch away Prosinecki's swinging corner but with 20 minutes gone Bruce had to reshuffle his side when Johnson limped off to be replaced by Darren Purse.

Both sides were struggling to create openings but John came close to doubling Birmingham's advantage seven minutes later with a close-range header from Bryan Hughes' free-kick.

The lively Prosinecki took control of the match but Portsmouth lacked ideas up front. However, Pompey were unlucky not to equalise in the 57th minute when Gary O'Neil beat Vaesen from outside the area, but his shot rebounded off the woodwork.

City almost sealed victory, though, with 17 minutes left when Michael Hughes' attempt was tipped round the post by Beasant. The effort roused the crowd and Birmingham threw men forward with John coming close with another header moments later.

But seven minutes from time Portsmouth scored a deserved equaliser with an 18-yard volley from Pitt which gave Vaesen no chance.

Birmingham City: Vaesen; Kenna, Tébily, M Johnson (Purse, 21), Grainger, D Johnson, B Hughes, M Hughes, Lazaridis, John (Devlin, 81), Mooney (Horsfield, 63). Substitutes not used: Bennett, Woodhouse.

Portsmouth: Beasant; Buxton, Wilson, Primus, Vincent, Harper, O'Neil, Summerbell, Pitt (Miglioranzi 90), Prosinecki, Biagini (Vine 45). Substitutes not used: Tardif, Barrett, Curtis.

Referee: H Webb (Rotherham).