Birmingham City 3 Manchester City 1: Birmingham grateful to Zarate for mastering clash of Styles

Argentinian gives McLeish's men vital boost despite eccentric refereeing
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The Independent Football

Alex McLeish started the season dreaming of the European Championship and the former Scotland manager would be loath to finish it by dropping into the Coca-Cola equivalent. However, if his Birmingham City team carry on playing like this he will stay in the spotlight.

Whether or not referee Rob Styles can avoid demotion after his performance is another question. Players and managers have been asked to show more respect to officials but it was not easy yesterday.

Birmingham were two goals up thanks to the excellent Mauro Zarate when Styles awarded a debatable penalty to Manchester City after 55 minutes and sent off the offender, Franck Queudrue. Elano scored from the spot but Styles gifted Birmingham an even softer penalty 15 minutes from the end, when Gary McSheffrey threw himself into Sun Jihai. McSheffrey picked himself up and made it 3-1.

None of which should detract from Birmingham's spirited display and, with Arsenal's comeback at Bolton, a little daylight has appeared between McLeish's team and the bottom three. "We were exceptional, especially in the first half," McLeish said. "I'm just happy with the win because we have drawn too many here. Zarate was excellent, I am delighted with him. He has great skills and I hope we can stay up and keep him here."

The Argentinian, 21, arrived on loan in January from Al Saad in Qatar. He opened his account at Reading last weekend and could be a key man in Birmingham's survival bid.

Manchester City, it has to be said, were awful and Sven Goran Eriksson did not spare his players. "The referee got it completely wrong with their penalty, I've never seen anything like it but we cannot just blame him," he said. "We must blame ourselves because we gave the ball away so many times and if we want to play in Europe we have to do a lot better than that. We will talk on Monday but if we play like that next weekend against Chelsea it will be a very unpleasant day."

Benjani hit a post early on but Birmingham soon took control and laid siege to City's goal. Elano cleared Radhi Jaidi's header off the line, Sun Jihai almost put the ball into his own net and McSheffrey, unmarked, volleyed over when he should have scored. Manchester City's captain, Richard Dunne, had one of his wretched days and he deflected a pass from the busy Seb Larsson narrowly over Joe Hart's bar after half an hour. Birmingham's pressure was relentless and Queudrue's spectacular overhead kick from the resulting corner was tipped over by the back-pedalling goalkeeper.

Finally, the Blues went ahead six minutes from the interval. Queudrue's long ball was once more deflected by Dunne into Zarate's path and the Argentinian lifted it over the advancing Hart with aplomb.

St Andrew's was rocking again early in the second half when Zarate doubled the lead in fine style. Mikael Forssell won the ball in the air, McSheffrey's deft touch found Zarate and again his finish was impressive, low to Hart's left.

Just as Birmingham looked like they might run away with it, Benjani went down after the slightest of touches by Queudrue and Styles, despite being 50 yards away from the incident, deemed it to be both a penalty and a sending off. The Frenchman led lengthy protests before he trudged off, though even in the current climate they were understandable.

Elano scored from the spot and City sensed they could yet gain an unlikely point. Styles was not finished yet though, and after 75 minutes returned the favour after McSheffrey shoulder-charged Sun before falling to the ground. McSheffrey sent a powerful penalty to Hart's left.