The following might make Christmas tolerable for Steve Bruce, Birmingham City's increasingly frustrated manager, apart from a win against Manchester United in the Carling Cup quarter-finals tomorrow: a binding commitment from his players that they will never again perform with the collective ineptitude that embarrassed him at the City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday; a cast-iron pledge from his board that it will fund the "emergency surgery" Bruce says he must perform in the January transfer window; and a bout of temporary amnesia over the identity of his team's next three opponents in the Premiership.
Tottenham (away), Manchester United at home and Chelsea (away) lie in wait, which is not good news for a team that made Manchester City, winners of two of their previous seven games, look like potential champions. Birmingham now have only the woeful Sunderland below them and, though there is the example of West Bromwich Albion last season to bring some optimism to Bruce's gloom, the scales of history tend to support the view that the bottom three at Christmas is not the place to be. Another of football's chestnuts, of course, is that the "vote of confidence" generally precedes the sack.
Bruce had his two weeks ago when David Sullivan, Birmingham's joint owner, said that "clubs in our position who do change managers usually still get relegated." Wisely, Bruce is not complacent.
"It is time some players stood up to be counted, but I am the manager and ultimately the responsibility stops with me," he said. "I'm taking nothing for granted." As he knows, declarations of loyalty rarely prove durable in the face of boardroom panic and if ever there was a panic-inducing performance, it was this.
There was some mitigation. The gamble of naming Emile Heskey on the bench backfired when the England striker, called away to witness the impending birth of his child in the morning, was still at his partner's bedside at the teatime kick-off. Risking David Dunn, who believed he could play through injury, also failed, although the England international was clearly displeased to be substituted even before half-time. But there was no explaining other shortcomings, such as why a defence built on the solid experience of two reputedly reliable rocks in Kenny Cunningham and Matthew Upson should prove so feeble.
Against their inadequate resistance, home manager Stuart Pearce's decision to name Antoine Sibierski ahead of Robbie Fowler and Bradley Wright-Phillips as Darius Vassell's strike partner looked inspired.
The Frenchman won virtually every ball for which he jumped and a good few on the ground, setting up two goals and scoring one himself, his first of the season. His header led to David Sommeil, the full-back, lashing home the opening goal after 43 seconds and it was his pass that teed up substitute Wright-Phillips, who revealed fine technique to drill in the fourth.
In between, leaping above Walter Pandiani, he glanced home a Joey Barton free-kick. "He has put pressure on me to keep him in the side," Pearce said.
How Bruce wished he could have said that about his players. Yiri Jarosik, a substitute, scored a decent goal, but of the players who started only goalkeeper Nico Vaesen ended in credit. Ironically, he must now sit one game out. Booked when he unavoidably upended Vassell to concede a 13th-minute penalty, Vaesen collected a second yellow in stoppage time for handling outside the box.
Goals: Sommeil (1) 1-0; Barton pen (13) 2-0; Sibierski (39) 3-0; Wright-Phillips (69) 4-0; Jarosik (75) 4-1.
Manchester City (4-4-2): James; Sommeil, Onuoha, Distin, Thatcher; Sinclair, Barton, Reyna (Fowler, 71), Jihai; Sibierski (Ireland, 84), Vassell (Wright-Phillips, 68). Substitutes not used: Croft, Jordan.
Birmingham City (4-5-1): Vaesen; Tebily (Forssell, 23), Upson, Cunningham, Painter; Johnson, Butt, Clemence, Dunn (Pennant, 35), Clapham; Pandiani (Jarosik, 73). Substitutes not used: Maik Taylor (gk), Heskey.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Manchester City Sinclair, Jihai; Birmingham City Vaesen, Clemence.
Sent off: Vaesen (90).
Man of the match: Sibierski.
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