Leeds' good fortune runs dry

Birmingham City 4 Leeds United 1
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The Independent Football

Lady Luck takes the blame for as many football matches being lost as referees do - even Liverpool games - but she is not as fickle as it sometimes appears. These things tend to even themselves out over a period of time and in this instance, in the course of a single week. Leeds United, beneficiaries of outrageous fortune in winning the first match under a new regime, at home to Manchester City on Monday, found the ball running the wrong way yesterday and were left stuck in the bottom three of the Premiership with eight games to play.

Lady Luck takes the blame for as many football matches being lost as referees do - even Liverpool games - but she is not as fickle as it sometimes appears. These things tend to even themselves out over a period of time and in this instance, in the course of a single week. Leeds United, beneficiaries of outrageous fortune in winning the first match under a new regime, at home to Manchester City on Monday, found the ball running the wrong way yesterday and were left stuck in the bottom three of the Premiership with eight games to play.

Winning the four at home, against Leicester, Everton, Portsmouth and Charlton, although not impossible, would still take them to only 37 points, necessitating at least a couple of gritty draws from more demanding visits to Blackburn, Arsenal, Bolton and Chelsea. With yesterday's second-half collapse rendering a bad goal difference worse, the dark clouds that seemed to be receding last weekend are scudding back across the West Riding.

The better side at the start of both halves, Leeds even scored first and should have been two up within 10 minutes. Something akin to Birmingham's 5-3 defeat at Middlesbrough last Saturday looked on the cards, but the visitors were dealt an increasingly unkind hand and in a critical period midway through the second period when Bryan Hughes and Mikael Forssell scored in the space of three minutes, their defending became as bad as the home team's - which took some doing.

"In general we played well," claimed their manager Eddie Gray, who received a pithier summary of the proceedings when he encountered his old mucker and minder Norman Hunter in the press room. "We gave them the goals very cheaply," Gray added. "We've got to concentrate for 90 minutes. It's going to be difficult now and results like that don't make it any easier."

His opposite number, Steve Bruce, has given up alcohol for Lent but much of his team's work at the back, especially in the first half, was enough to make him pour a stiff one. They were frequently too deep and square, the central pair not marking tightly enough and the full-backs turned every which way by Jermaine Pennant and James Milner. In the end, however, Chelsea's Forssell shaded Arsenal's Pennant as the day's loan star.

There are question marks surrounding Pennant's discipline off the field which may mean he fails to make a career at Highbury. Only one player, however - Blackburn's Brett Emerton - has delivered more crosses in the Premiership this season and on a good day like yesterday's, his value as an old-fashioned winger prepared to work both flanks is immense. Pennant's assist for the opening goal after barely four minutes was a beautifully executed pass after a weaving run from left to right, slipped through for Mark Viduka, who was equally deft in controlling the ball and taking it round Maik Taylor.

The negative aspect to the goal was Birmingham's marking, Matthew Upson allowing the Australian goal-side of him much too easily. The same weakness was exposed only five minutes later as the defence failed to deal with Viduka's cross from the left. Milner returned it to the far post, where Viduka, with all the net to aim at, contrived to hit the side of it.

For a long time there was equal unease at the other end. Early on Paul Robinson dropped a corner under pressure from Upson and in the 12th minute there was an undeserved equaliser; in Birmingham's first coherent move, Clinton Morrison was sent down the right for a low centre that Robinson unwisely moved towards, Stan Lazaridis flicking it on for the unmarked Hughes to score with a tap-in.

Martin Grainger's left foot was a source of discomfort to the visitors as Birmingham slowly asserted themselves. By half-time three of his corners brought headers from Martin Taylor (twice) and Hughes, all drifting over. Then a swinging free-kick from 25 yards struck the bar, Taylor instinctively nudging the rebound straight at the goalkeeper.

Leeds had lost their way and Forssell, - who has more goals by far than any other Chelsea striker this season - was close to another one after 35 minutes. Easing away from Dominic Matteo, he had one shot beaten out by Robinson and the follow-up hacked off the line by Didier Domi.

"Second half we defended more like Birmingham City," said Bruce, whose one worrying moment in that three-quarters of an hour came when Kenny Cunningham's back-pass hit a divot, causing Maik Taylor to complete an embarrassing air-shot as the ball crept narrowly past his post. After that they became more solid and when Cunningham took to punting the ball forward there were rich rewards. In the 67th minute, Stephen Caldwell allowed one such effort to drop over his shoulder, Lazaridis holding it up for Hughes, unattended, to drive in. Soon Forssell was away on to another Cunningham hoof, left onside by a dozing defence, and that was 3-1.

By the 82rd minute, Birmingham could afford a prolonged debate over who should take a penalty harshly awarded for Caldwell's nudge on Morrison. Professionalism decreed that Hughes, seeking the first hat-trick of his career, should be overruled and Forssell duly chalked up his 18th goal of the season. Eat your hearts out Mutu and Crespo.

Sing your hearts out, Leeds supporters. But it may still become a lament for relegation.

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