Aston Villa 3 Birmingham City 1: Cahill flies high to give Bruce the blues

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The Independent Football

A rousing contest had Villa Park crackling with excitement where it often festers with antipathy towards the 82-year-old chairman and his manager, David O'Leary. All of which was of scant consolation to Birmingham, who briefly looked the likelier winners after cancelling out Milan Baros' opening goal through Chris Sutton's first for the club, only to fall behind to a spectacular effort by 20-year-old Gary Cahill.

Baros' second goal, which effectively ended lingering fears of Villa being sucked into the relegation struggle, came shortly after he should have been shown a second yellow card, and with it a red. Graham Poll failed in his duty after the Czech striker's blatant dive, and Steve Bruce, the Birmingham manager, argued with some justification that "key decisions" went against his team. They now face the prospect of being six points behind Portsmouth if the south coast side win at Charlton today.

In truth, Birmingham's one-dimensional approach - which involved repeatedly seeking to exploit the aerial power of Sutton and Emile Heskey against the inexperienced Cahill and Liam Ridgewell - scarcely merited a point. To say fortune did not favour them would, however, be an understatement. Having lost Jiri Jarosik to a hamstring strain in training on Saturday, Bruce saw Matthew Upson suffer a suspected ruptured Achilles tendon during the warm-up and David Dunn pull up lame early on.

Villa could point to the hamstring injury which deprived them of Steven Davis midway through the first half which may mean a premature end to the Northern Irishman's excellent season. A youthful side looked there for the taking, but they scored goals at vital stages in the second half. With the outstanding Gavin McCann in a withdrawn role in front of the centre-backs, they sat deep and punished Birmingham's ever more erratic defending on the break.

No one did that more dangerously than Baros, the Midlands' answer to Didier Drogba. His less cynical side was on display as early as the 10th minute, when Poll gave Villa the benefit of substantial doubt after James Milner raised a foot as high as Matthew Sadler's face before laying the ball off to Aaron Hughes. His cross, wretchedly defended by Birmingham, fell to Baros, who took one touch before calmly dispatching it from six yards.

Birmingham, pushing Heskey into the wide-left role Dunn had occupied and introducing Mikael Forssell up front, retaliated strongly and drew level 15 minutes later. Kenny Cunningham's high free-kick caused consternation in the Villa ranks. In a congested area, the ball fell for Sutton - with a swing of his left foot from eight yards out - to fire his 150th goal in the English and Scottish leagues.

Villa regained the initiative after the break. Birmingham dealt feebly with Ridgewell's cross, but when the ball squirted into the air near the angle of the six-yard box, no one expected Cahill to launch himself into a bicycle kick that gave Maik Taylor no chance. The goal evoked images of Denis Law or the watching David Platt rather than a rookie defender who had made his debut just a week earlier.

Baros, unpunished as he backed into Martin Taylor, began the move for the final goal and finished it with a low diagonal shot after Milner and Juan Pablo Angel linked well around the 18-yard area. As the home supporters crowed and cavorted, and the Birmingham contingent started to slink away, O'Leary stood and stared pointedly towards Ellis.

The Villa manager made a thinly veiled appeal for greater investment. "People talk about the potential here, but what we've got to do is back that up by bringing in more players of the quality of Baros," he said. "Somebody's going to crack it here. I'm determined to be the one."

Outside, the Villa crowd were departing to the triumphalist strains of "Hi Ho Silver Lining".

However, Birmingham are fast approaching the stage where only those who can spot a silver lining in a mushroom cloud will back them to be around to resume tribal hostilities come August.

Goals: Baros (10) 1-0; Sutton (25) 1-1; Cahill (56) 2-1; Baros (78) 3-1.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Hughes, Cahill, Ridgewell, Samuel; Milner (Agbonlahor, 84), McCann, Davis (Gardner, 24), Barry; Phillips (Angel, 59), Baros. Substitutes not used: S Taylor (gk), De La Cruz.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Tebily, Cunningham (Lazaridis, 79), Martin Taylor, Sadler; Pennant, Butt, Johnson, Dunn (Forssell, 17); Heskey, Sutton. Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Bruce, Izzet.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Booked: Villa: Baros, McCann, Barry, Cahill. Birmingham: Johnson, Tebily, Butt.

Man of the match: McCann.

Attendance: 40,158.

Birmingham's fight for survival

Remaining fixtures

Blackburn (H) Wednesday

Everton (A) Saturday

Newcastle (H) 29 April

Bolton (A) 7 May

Premiership bottom six:

Aston Villa 34 9 12 13 37 47 39

Fulham 34 11 6 17 43 55 39

Portsmouth 34 8 8 18 31 55 32

Birmingham 34 7 8 19 26 48 29

West Brom 34 7 7 20 29 52 28

Sunderland (R) 33 2 6 25 21 57 12