Saha sums up the best and worst of United

Birmingham City 1 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Football

A week after what was probably their best performance of the season, in deflating Arsenal, Manchester United threatened, at times, to produce their worst. There are no half measures for this club. In the end they forced a victory which bolstered renewed hope of over-hauling Chelsea and holding on to the tail of the champions-elect.

A week after what was probably their best performance of the season, in deflating Arsenal, Manchester United threatened, at times, to produce their worst. There are no half measures for this club. In the end they forced a victory which bolstered renewed hope of over-hauling Chelsea and holding on to the tail of the champions-elect.

Not that Birmingham City care. They scored their first Premiership goal against United, at their fourth attempt, but will rue the ones they conceded. Both came lamely from simple headers. "To concede two goals from balls played into our box from 40 yards away is bitterly disappointing," said the bitterly disappointed Steve Bruce. "Usually we gobble them up all day long." Instead they choked.

Victory would have put Birmingham level with Liverpool for that elusive fourth place. Instead their limitations were bluntly exposed. United were there for the taking until the introduction of Cristiano Ronaldo and the awakening of Ryan Giggs. Birmingham let them, and the points, escape. And with it their season lost a little impetus. "What we needed to push us on was a victory against one of the big boys," Bruce said. In addition he probably lost two players - Stan Lazaridis and goalscorer Martin Grainger - for the rump of the season. No wonder they call them the Blues.

Sir Alex Ferguson ran the risk by resting Roy Keane, not even asking him to travel. In came Eric Djemba-Djemba who may have twice the name but is not yet half the player. Despite the intoxicating fog of last Saturday's FA Cup triumph, United arrived with just a single Premiership victory from half a dozen attempts.

They started brightly - an early shot by Louis Saha smothered by Matthew Upson but faded so badly as to be indistinguishable for the rest of the half. It was just one shapeless mass with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stranded perversely on the left. Birmingham took the invitation. A burst by Bryan Hughes fired them into life and although his shot was smartly saved the home side poured forward. A chip by Robbie Savage struck the tip of the crossbar, the recalled Stephen Clemence lobbed narrowly over and Mikael Forssell skidded another shot wide.

On the half-hour Saha was spreading his arms in exasperation as yet another long punt cleared his head. Maybe he should have been more accurate himself with a sharp chance from Giggs' alert flick-on. He prodded wide. At the other end Djemba-Djemba tugged back Savage. The Brummie Beckham - substitute Grainger - stepped up and from almost 30 yards curled the ball left-footed over a chaotic wall and past a leaden Roy Carroll. For United there was a collective culpability. Defenders and goalkeeper appeared at fault.

The goal was, nevertheless, a shard of brilliance and was the first Carroll had conceded in more than 300 minutes. It was also just about Grainger's last act. The sub was subbed, a damaged knee, at half-time. After the break the game continued to drift, as did the shooting of Saha who hoofed at a clear sight on goal and was even more wasteful with a header. Solskjaer was withdrawn - failure admitted - but it could have been just about any United player. His replacement, Ronaldo, had an immediate impact, however.

One more centre came in and the teenager glanced a header inside the far post. Given the bulk of Birmingham's defence, it was a curiosity. "Ronaldo is a fantastic player and if he dances past three players and smashes it in then fine. But he scored from a header from six yards," mused Bruce. With the goal, Ferguson pushed on. Diego Forlan was deployed for the wretched Djemba-Djemba and Darren Fletcher flourished after moving inside.

Suddenly United had a shape and a cutting edge. After a second Ronaldo header was scrambled away, they struck again. A cross by Giggs was allowed to reach Saha and he, finally and firmly, found the net. With four minutes left Forssell tried to reproduce Grainger's goal but his free-kick lacked pace. For Birmingham there's still hope of a top-six finish for the first time since 1956. United were champions then. They won't be this time but their resistance flickers.

Birmingham City 1
Grainger 39

Manchester United 2
Ronaldo 60, Saha 78

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 29,548

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