Birmingham have been on the slide since Savage completed his protracted departure in January and a third successive defeat has left them stuck at the blunt end of the Premiership table. With two points from their last six games, the downward shift is gathering worrying momentum. Of equal concern, they managed to force just the one save from Brad Friedel in 90 minutes yesterday, the American snaffling a low shot from Nicky Butt in the 73rd minute.
It was bad enough for Bruce that Savage was officially proclaimed star of a decidedly dull show. It was worse still that another Welshman who spurned him in January should put the result beyond doubt. City were trailing to Paul Dickov's 49th- minute penalty when Craig Bellamy scored a second for Blackburn with nine minutes remaining. The Blackburn substitute chose to go to Celtic on loan rather than sign for Birmingham following his spat with Graeme Souness after Christmas. On yesterday's evidence, his judgment - and that of Savage - can hardly be faulted.
"It's been our worst possible start," Bruce lamented. "We're under no illusions. We know we're in for a long, hard winter. I never criticise players, but too many of our big-name players are not performing."
The Birmingham manager was even more furious, though, about the performance of Barry Knight - specifically, the referee's decision to award Blackburn their penalty, punishing Matthew Upson for holding on to Dickov. "It's probably the worst decision I've seen from a referee," Bruce said. "I've just seen it on television and it's absolutely pathetic. It totally changed the game."
It was a game that needed changing. There was such a dearth of endeavour from either side in the first half that Mark Hughes was drawn to the touchline, pointing towards the goal behind Maik Taylor, in the hope that his players might manage to locate it. They finally got within range of it three minutes before half-time but Dickov steered a shot tamely into the clutches of Taylor.
Half-time arrived with Ladbrokes' offer of 8-1 against a goalless 90 minutes looking on the philanthropic side of generous. Four minutes into the second half, though, the stalemate was broken. Upson clearly had his hands on Dickov, who blasted his penalty kick past Taylor and then made way for Bellamy to do the finishing off. The Welshman duly obliged, taking Morten Gamst Pedersen's prompting pass and beat Taylor with a neat, side-footed finish.
For Bellamy, it was goal No 1 as a Blackburn player in the Premiership. For Bruce, and for Birmingham, it was defeat No 6 in a season of mounting strife.
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