Middlesbrough 1 Birmingham City 0: Boro see light as Viduka darkens Bruce's mood

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The Independent Football

It may be too soon to suggest that Middlesbrough's relegation fears have been banished but after another rewarding 90 minutes in their current resurgence, Steve McClaren's side can start to breathe a little more easily, having opened up a gap of 11 points between themselves and those clubs most deeply mired in the battle to stay up.

Mark Viduka's goal at the end of the first half was enough to introduce what will be another week of mounting tension for Birmingham, who dominated possession for long periods but still left empty-handed. They had hoped to sneak above West Bromwich Albion and thereby out of the bottom three on goal difference after the defeat of their rivals earlier.

The visit of Bryan Robson's team to St Andrew's next week now takes on still more significance while Middlesbrough can turn their attention towards their first Uefa meeting with Roma with much clearer heads.

Birmingham had to deal with another clutch of setbacks in an injury-riddled season, Chris Sutton, Muzzy Izzet and Martin Latka adding the latest worry lines to manager Steve Bruce's brow, but Albion's defeat to Chelsea had offered a potent incentive.

However, if they could thank one West Midlands neighbour for being obliging enough to drop points, they will feel less well disposed towards Aston Villa, whose thumping win on Teesside last month has focused Middlesbrough minds so effectively that they have won six of their last seven games in all competitions.

Even so, before Viduka struck a cagey first half had seen them provide as much evidence as their opponents to explain the shortcomings of their season. The most obvious example came in the 33rd minute, when Viduka's flick combined with Alex Bruce's mistake to leave Aiyegbeni Yakubu with only goalkeeper Maik Taylor to beat. But McClaren's despair as his top scorer's toe-poke went the wrong side of the post merely balanced his relief at seeing Birmingham's Emile Heskey direct a free header wide 10 minutes earlier.

It was Steve Bruce who was grimacing in the last minute of the opening half, however, as his centre-half son was found wanting again at a critical moment, this time allowing Viduka to get the better of him before the Australian striker continued his impressive scoring record against Birmingham by squeezing home his seventh goal in six Premiership matches against them.

McClaren plans to watch Roma take on Internazionale at the Stadio Olimpico today so it was hardly surprising that his thoughts were on Thursday's home leg against the Italians. Even with only a single-goal advantage, he took off Viduka and Gaizka Mendieta with a quarter of the match still remaining.

The lead had looked a precarious one when David Dunn, who had tested Mark Schwarzer in the first half, rose to meet Julian Gray's cross inside the six-yard box. But the Middlesbrough goalkeeper defied him again with the save of the match.

"We had three or four good chances and at this level that is all you are going to get," Bruce said. "The fact is that we didn't take one of them."

McClaren more or less concurred with Bruce's assessment that the better team lost. "We didn't play as well as we would have liked but it was a day where what mattered most was the result," he said.