Suddenly the euphoric winter's afternoon when Birmingham stunned Arsenal to lift the Carling Cup looks like a mirage or a millstone. This supine defeat by Fulham, who scored at the start of either half through defender Brede Hangeland, leaves Alex McLeish's side in danger of emulating Norwich in 1985 and becoming the second club ever to win a major trophy and be relegated.
Birmingham will step out at Tottenham on the final day with only two victories in 11 Premier League matches spread over the 77 days since Obafemi Martins' goal sparked a rhapsody in blue at Wembley. Even allowing for the fact that Martins was one of several players unavailable yesterday due to injury or suspension, Fulham won with embarrassing ease.
The permutations for Birmingham's survival run the full gamut. They could win and still go down, depending on how Wigan and Blackpool fare; they could lose and stay up, based on how many their main rivals were to lose by; and they could draw and either escape the cut or plummet into the Championship two years after escaping it.
Their manager, Alex McLeish, admitted the Carling Cup triumph had had an effect physically and mentally on his players but responded tersely to suggestions that a depleted team had not shown their customary tenacity and spirit. The Scot also struck an upbeat note about the visit to Spurs.
"It's a tough task to go there and win, but we've done it before," he said, doubtless recalling a 3-2 success at White Hart Lane in his first game with Birmingham.
McLeish added: "We've been in the situation before where it has looked impossible and it has happened for us. They've shown the character time and again, but today we were out-muscled and Fulham were terrific on the day."
Mark Hughes was delighted by Fulham's reaction to a 5-2 drubbing by Liverpool a week ago. "That's back-to-back away wins for us," the former Manchester City manager said. "It was about showing we haven't switched off. There are targets we've set ourselves and we intend to reach them. We're aiming for seventh place, which would be a real achievement."
Sod's law dictated that Ben Foster, having announced he was taking a "break" from England duty, would either produce a characteristically defiant display or a rare error. Unfortunately for Birmingham, it was the latter, the goalkeeper almost allowing a kick from the hands of his opposite number, Mark Schwarzer, to sneak past him. Foster clawed the ball behind, only for Hangeland to head in from Jonathan Greening's corner.
Fulham, relaxed and confident, sensed what Hughes termed the "apprehension" in Birmingham and could have been two up by the half-hour. From a free-kick by Greening, Bobby Zamora glanced the ball against the far post. The reprieve seemed to stir McLeish's side, and a low cross by the overlapping Stuart Parnaby was met by the chest of Martin Jiranek only for the ball to flash across the goal on its way behind.
Birmingham briefly took the game to Fulham. The old hands in central midfield, Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer, increased their efforts to wrest ascendancy from Danny Murphy and Steve Sidwell. David Bentley, restored to the team after failing to make the bench against Wolves in the previous home fixture, demonstrated a desire to atone for not staying for the match on that occasion with some clever wing play and crosses.
Another half, another early corner and another "soft goal", as McLeish saw it, for Hangeland. Greening's kick struck Jiranek and looped into the air for Zamora to leap for what looked a certain goal. Ferguson cleared off the line, although only to Hangeland, whose benefit match continued with his seventh goal of the season, an eight-yard volley.
Foster achieved redemption of a sort with a diving save from Eidur Gudjohnsen, while Sidwell fired against a post, at least sparing the hosts further damage to their already problematic goal difference. The sight of substitute Aleksandr Hleb being carried off after a foul by Gudjohnsen, leaving Birmingham with 10 men for the last 12 minutes, merely compounded the sense that a fraught final week waits ahead of them.
Substitutes: Birmingham Hleb (Bowyer, 50), Beausejour (Parnaby, 56), Davies (Jiranek, 67). Fulham Gudjohnsen (Zamora, 50), Etuhu (Murphy 71), Gera (Dempsey, 89).
Booked: Birmingham None. Fulham Salcido, Murphy, Johnson, Gudjohnsen.
Man of the match: Hangeland. Match rating: 6/10. Possession: Birmingham 60% Fulham 40%. Attempts on target: Birmingham 2 Fulham 9. Referee: P Walton (Northants).
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