Birmingham City 3 Middlesbrough 0: Christmas break gives Birmingham fresh heart

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The Independent Online

Birmingham City insured themselves against a January programme that is as tough as it gets with a victory that lifts them four points clear of the relegation places. Five games under Alex McLeish have now yielded seven points and as the manager of any lowly team will confirm, those ground out against fellow strugglers such as Middlesbrough are the ones likeliest to bring survival.

Saturday's visit of managerless Fulham invites thoughts of three more and Birmingham might need them as games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea lie round the corner.

Daylight has been established, though, after Stewart Downing's own-goal and Mikael Forssell's predatory finish put them in an ascendancy they had not previously enjoyed this season.

It was never comfortable because Middlesbrough had their share of many second-half near-misses before Gary McSheffrey picked himself up from Robert Huth's trip to score a stoppage-time third from the penalty spot.

In a highly competitive game, Birmingham underlined that their spirit is intact and repaid McLeish for giving them a surprise day off on Tuesday. "It was perfect to not only get the victory but also keep a clean sheet," the manager said.

"We've got the pay-back from giving the players Christmas Day with their families. There's a tier system in this league and we have to finish as high as we can in our battle with the teams down there.

"It hasn't done our confidence any harm for Saturday. Six points are now a real possibility but there can be no complacency."

The first incision in the 21st minute was gift-wrapped. Julio Arca clumsily barged over Cameron Jerome close to the penalty area on the right and the punishment was to stretch much further than the Argentinian's yellow card.

McSheffrey's low, driven free-kick was covered by Mark Schwarzer until Downing attempted a clearance that sliced off the outside of his left boot and in at the near post.

After Forssell clipped the goal frame having brilliantly made room in a chaotic area, Birmingham gained breathing space just before the interval. Sebastian Larsson's in-swinging corner was glanced on by Jerome for Forssell to touch through the narrow gap between Arca and the post.

Middlesbrough's victories over Arsenal and Derby are already fading memories, although Tuncay Sanli, the architect of that mini-revival, headed a good chance straight at Maik Taylor from Fabio Rochenback's free kick and Jrmie Aliadire was lively before being replaced at half-time.

Aliadire thumped an early effort at Taylor, drove powerfully wide from 25 yards and, in between, challenged strongly enough when Radhi Jaidi could only miss-head Jonathan Woodgate's long free-kick after Taylor's attempted punch hit his defender. The ball bounced goalwards and required Stephen Kelly's goal-line clearance.

Rochenback, Tuncay and the substitute Huth brought good saves from Taylor in a helter-skelter second half in which Larsson typified Birmingham's positive approach with a tremendous challenge on Luke Young and a fierce shot that fizzed narrowly wide in the same attack.

Admirable last-ditch defending at both ends prevented further goals until virtually full-time, but Gareth Southgate remained unhappy with his players. "We were very, very poor in the first half," he said. "We didn't get out of the traps and have let ourselves down because 3-0 here is a very poor result. I knew we hadn't turned the corner and the evidence was there."

Goals: 1-0 Downing (21, own goal); 2-0 Forssell (45); 3-0 McSheffrey (90, pen).

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Taylor; Kelly, Jaidi, Ridgewell, Queudrue; Larsson (Nafti, 82) Johnson, Muamba, McSheffrey; Forssell (O'Connor, 77), Jerome.

Substitutes not used: Doyle (gk), Djourou, De Ridder.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Young, Woodgate, Wheater (Huth, h-t), Pogatetz; Boateng, Rochenback, Arca (Johnson, 70), Downing; Tuncay, Aliadiere (Lee, h-t).

Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Shawky.

Referee: M Halsey (Bolton).

Booked: Birmingham: McSheffrey. Middlesbrough: Arca, Woodgate.

Man of the match: Sebastian Larsson.

Attendance: 24,094.

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