This was billed as a grudge match, but there was neither soup, nor pizza, in sight and, at the final whistle, hordes of Birmingham City's disgruntled supporters headed home as the remainder stood and booed. In their first top-flight meeting with the Blues since 1981, Iain Dowie's Palace, courtesy of a clinical 41st-minute finish from their in-form marksman and former Birmingham player Andy Johnson, deservedly secured their first away win and third victory in four Premiership outings with a classic counter-attacking performance.
The goal, taken with cold-blooded finesse, was the highlight of an otherwise dour encounter. Birmingham, short of confidence, fluency and ideas, relied too much on their right-flank combination of the former Chelsea duo Mario Melchiot and Jesper Gronkjaer, their outstanding performers, and wasted several openings. Palace, well-drilled, resourceful and dogged, soaked up the pressure, rode their luck and broke with pace and venom. It was Birmingham's second successive single-goal home defeat this week.
"It is easy to see our problems," said the Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce. "You cannot win a football match unless you can score a goal." He made it clear that he spread the responsibility beyond the hapless front pairing of Dwight Yorke and Emile Heskey, but, in truth, he was only being polite. Gronkjaer provided a consistent service of crosses from the flanks. The central strikers played as if they had yet to be introduced and demonstrated all the subtle understanding of astronauts lost in space.
After five draws, it was Birmingham's first defeat in six League outings. Dowie, commanding and instructing from the touchline, did not gloat. He talked afterwards of his side's poor technique, poor passing and said it was Johnson's worst game this season. That it brought his eighth goal and endorsed slightly fanciful claims of an England call-up was not lost on Dowie. "If it was Northern Ireland, I would back him," said the manager. "But I want to keep him at Palace." To that end, Dowie has Johnson signed on a five-year contract.
Johnson took his goal literally in his stride. When Damien Johnson lost possession cheaply to Ben Hughes in midfield, the ball ricocheted to Wayne Routledge. His 30-yard run drew out the Birmingham defence and a carefully weighted pass sent the striker streaking through the inside-right channel to glide a low shot beyond Maik Taylor and inside the far post.
Only four minutes earlier, Birmingham had gone as close as they would in the contest. A free-kick on the left from Robbie Savage bounced off Melchiot's shoulder and, with the eccentric Gabor Kiraly beaten, appeared sure to go in until Fitz Hall cleared off his own line. This opportunity capped a frantic spell of pressure from Birmingham and, deflated by the goal, and the blind alley runs of their strikers, the home side grew desperate. Darren Anderton was introduced and showed why he is no longer playing for Tottenham, though, to be fair, his efforts to encourage a shorter passing game were wasted in the surroundings.
Gronkjaer blazed over, Yorke saw one effort saved and Kiraly, a Hungarian recruited from Hertha Berlin who played in an outfit that resembled an unwashed Gulag prisoner's kit, stopped everything else. Only Melchiot, the home side's best player, appeared capable of equalising, but he saw his best shots saved and fly wide in the closing minutes before the excellent Dermot Gallagher blew for time.
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