Middlesbrough 1 Birmingham City 0: The stakes rise for Bruce before battle with Robson

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The Independent Online

The friendship enjoyed by Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson is deep enough to transcend parochial rivalries but for Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion the stakes have now gone beyond mere West Midlands bragging rights. When the two face one another at St Andrew's on Saturday, it will probably be the first time their respective managers have spoken since the battle for Premiership survival became serious.

Perhaps it is to be expected. If the two were not already locked in a fight for one place at the top table, they almost certainly are now and they will not be exchanging tips on how to make it theirs.

"I haven't spoken to Bryan in weeks," Bruce admitted after defeat at Middlesbrough left his Birmingham side still in the bottom three, still three points behind Robson's Albion. In the past the two former Manchester United team-mates have chatted regularly, over dinner or on the phone. Lately, though, the lines have stayed silent.

It does not surprise the Birmingham manager. "We both understand the situation," he said. "We're both fighting for our lives and we both want to keep our clubs in the Premier League because we all know what that means and what happens if you don't."

Clearly, though, the warmth remains, with Bruce looking for an excuse to break the ice. "He's been in a bit of bother today, hasn't he?" he enquired, having seen television pictures of Robson and Jose Mourinho exchanging angry words on the touchline during Chelsea's win at The Hawthorns. "I might give him a bell to see how he is. I wish he was in my team for the West Brom game, that's for sure."

Bruce knows that the energy, bravery and cussed refusal to concede defeat that characterised Robson as a player are the qualities both teams will require in the games to come. Birmingham were the better side against Middlesbrough but possibly lacked the extra ounce of willpower that might have won the points.

He recognises, too, that while the derby will not decide the struggle, its outcome will carry huge significance. Bruce's best hope seems to be that his players will draw on recent experience against rivals in similar straits. "It will be an edgy occasion but we're used to that edginess. We beat Sunderland and Portsmouth so we've become accustomed to beating the teams around us.

"Defeat would not be the be-all and end-all of the season for either side but psychologically it's a big, big game. If we can beat them we will go above them and be out of the bottom three for the first time since October."

Birmingham have the bonus of a game in hand, although that knowledge only marginally lessens the disappointment of having failed to do the leapfrogging on Saturday. There were chances, notably to David Dunn and Emile Heskey, but neither could match the execution Mark Viduka produced to score the decisive goal moments before half-time. The Australian striker took advantage of an error by Bruce's son, Alex, before tucking the ball home from a narrow angle, remarkably scoring his seventh goal in his last six appearances against Birmingham for Middlesbrough and Leeds. "It was a great goal and shows what Mark is capable of," the Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren, said.

Relegation had been a nagging fear for Middlesbrough a month ago but four wins in five has given them breathing space so that Thursday's Uefa Cup first leg against Roma can be approached with a clear head.

Goal: Viduka (45) 1-0.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Parnaby (Davies, 20), Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue; Mendieta (Doriva, 68), Boateng, Cattermole, Pogatetz; Yakubu, Viduka (Maccarone, 68). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Ehiogu.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Melchiot, Bruce, Martin Taylor, Gray; Pennant, Kilkenny (Jarosik, 57), Butt, Johnson (Forssell, 78); Dunn (Campbell, 56), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Tebily.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Man of the match: Viduka.

Attendance: 28,141.

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