Points continue to be more plentiful than goals for Manchester United. Once again, one of the latter was enough as Cristiano Ronaldo marked his 100th Premier League start with the finish that lifted the champions back above their greatest geographical rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool, into second place. By no means was it a vintage performance and Birmingham had every right to contend that they deserved to be ahead following some alarming United defending in the first half.
But United's season is being built on 1-0 victories – this was their fourth in the League alone – and, remarkably, the fledgling table shows only the bottom team, Derby, scoring fewer goals. So far in 2007-08, United's eight Premier League games have produced a miserly nine goals in total. It is a bizarre statistic, contradicted by the manner in which Birmingham repeatedly threatened before the break and had Sir Alex Ferguson admitting: "Give them full credit, that's the hardest game of the season and they are a good team with a lot of pace and aggression. Going in at 0-0, I was happy and we retained possession far better in the second half and defended much better."
There was extra satisfaction for United in as much as victory was achieved despite the half-time loss of Edwin van der Sar with a toe injury that makes the keeper doubtful for Tuesday's Champions' League home game with Roma.
The Dutchman had produced two fine early saves to deny Birmingham and his replacement, Tomasz Kuszczak, also performed manfully in the spirited home response to Ronaldo's second goal of the season seven minutes after the break.
The breakthrough was calamitous for Birmingham's left-back Franck Queudrue, who dallied over Rio Ferdinand's hopeful long ball and allowed the Portuguese winger to dispossess him amid his blundering attempts at a recovery. The rest was utterly predictable as Liam Ridgewell was left trailing before a composed side-step of the goalkeeper Maik Taylor resulted in an open-goal finish for Ronaldo. It was finishing of a high order.
Ferguson made seven changes from the Carling Cup eclipse by Coventry City as he went back to the side that accounted for Chelsea last weekend but his A team nonetheless resembled strangers on occasions.
Twice in the opening two minutes, Van der Sar made excellent saves, on the first occasion following an aberration by Paul Scholes. The midfielder, in trying to pick out Ferdinand deep in his own half, instead located Cameron Jerome, whose powerful left-foot shot was palmed aside with difficulty.
The resulting corner was even more disturbing for Manchester United as Sebastian Larsson's in-swinging kick found Queudrue unmarked for a header that was well held right on the line.
Scoring at a goal per game, Birmingham had been more prolific before yesterday than Steve Bruce's former club and they continued to go close to a breakthrough as Patrice Evra's hesitancy enabled Larsson to centre deep for the impressive Gary McSheffrey to direct a header that Ferdinand blocked on the line.
Although Ronaldo and the more subdued Wayne Rooney brought saves at the other end, most of the traffic and mayhem was around United's goalmouth, Van der Sar clearing poorly from his area and being reprieved by the intervention of Nemanja Vidic as Jerome shot from 35 yards towards a vacant net.
Two saves by Kuszczak – the second of them an outstanding one after Ferdinand had inadvertently re-routed McSheffrey's stinging drive – said much about Birmingham's spirited bid for a quick equaliser.
United did, though, establish some semblance of control for substantial spells in the second half, Rooney being thwarted near the line by Stephen Kelly and teeing up Ronaldo for a left-foot effort that was dragged wide.
They will inevitably be challenging for the title again and their latest victims will be aiming for survival but this really was the day for Birmingham to have recorded their first win over United for 29 years.
"We gave a terrific performance, especially in the first half," Bruce said. "To create four or five chances against the champions is outstanding and we just need to take one of them."Reuse content