Burnley generosity has Benitez in tears
Birmingham City 2 Burnley 1: Ecuador striker makes an emotional farewell to home fans by securing a top-10 finish for Birmingham
Sunday 02 May 2010
An exalted position in the Fair Play League may yet earn relegated Burnley a place in the Europa League next season, although they took the after-you-Claude approach to extremes yesterday. First their goalkeeper Brian Jensen contributed an own goal to Birmingham's push to reach the 50-point mark and secure a top-10 finish for the first time since 1959. Burnley then allowed Christian Benitez, the on-loan Ecuador striker, to break his season-long scoring duck at St Andrew's before Steven Thompson's late consolation effort.
For Burnley, who mark the 50th anniversary of their last League title today, consolation may not be the most apposite word given that they have now taken only seven points out of 51 available since Brian Laws succeeded Owen Coyle.
But for Birmingham, who were promoted with the Lancashire club, the afternoon ended with their manager, Alex McLeish, taking the microphone to address a demob-happy crowd. "It was important for us to sustain our home record," the former Scotland manager said later. "We haven't lost here since September and hopefully we'll sustain that aura next season."
This was almost certainly Benitez's farewell appearance before the Birmingham fans – he would cost £7m from Mexico's Santos Laguna – as well as goalkeeper Joe Hart's Second City swansong. McLeish said he would "assess the situation" regarding Benitez and likened Hart's impact to that of Edwin van der Sar, who, he argued, "saves Manchester United 15 points a season".
Meanwhile, Laws said: "If you took the goals out of the game, which you can do, we had the lion's share of the ball and passed it well." Insisting that he would be in charge next season, he added less fancifully: "That probably summed up our season, particularly the way we defended set-plays."
As fate would have it, McLeish's side were confronted, on the weekend after their controversial defeat at Aston Villa, by the sight of another team in claret and blue. Birmingham attacked with a zeal that indicated they were anxious to purge the memory of Villa Park and could have been four up before they finally took the lead. Burnley's slapdash covering went a long way towards explaining why they have shipped a half-century of goals on their travels.
In less than a minute Lee Bowyer sent a free header wide, and Cameron Jerome missed in identical fashion before forcing a fine save from Jensen at point-blank range.
There was no respite for the burly Dane when Birmingham next threatened. Sebastian Larsson's cross was met by a flicked header from Bowyer which diverted the ball towards the far post. Jerome connected with his chest but the ball was not goal-bound until it struck Jensen and trickled almost mockingly across the goalline.
When Birmingham doubled their advantage, Burnley were unfortunate that referee Peter Walton deemed Steven Caldwell's challenge on Jerome a foul. The defender looked to have taken the ball first. From the free-kick, floated to the back post by James McFadden, Johnson headed the ball back for Benitez to chest over the line. "Sign him up" sang the crowd as the scorer celebrated by bursting into tears.
Burnley creditably kept plugging away, not the easiest thing to do when you have won twice in six months, and Steven Fletcher impressed sufficiently to suggest he will still be a Premier League performer when the adventure is over for his team-mates.
But this, for once, was Benitez's day. Larsson, supplied by the South American, was inches away from a spectacular volleyed goal while Benitez himself was denied by Leon Cort's desperate block. Birmingham's failure to score a third could have been costly after Jack Cork released Thompson to halve the arrears, but there was no way back for Burnley.
Referee: Peter Walton
Man of the match: Benitez
Match rating: 5/10
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