Having feared what Juninho might do to them, Birmingham found that their own hand contained the ace at icy St Andrews last night. With two goals in the opening 18 minutes from their towering striker, Kevin Francis, an pounds 800,000 signing from Stockport, it was the First Division side who advanced to the quarter finals of the Coca Cola Cup after a fourth-round replay from which the pounds 4.75m Brazilian was effectively frozen out.
Although Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, was inclined to blame crucial individual errors for the demise of the Premiership side, Birmingham were good value for their victory, absorbing such pressure as Juninho and company were able to create without suffering major alarm. The Brazilian emerged blameless as one chance of reaching a Wembley final disappeared, let down by colleagues who probably lacked the appetite that Birmingham clearly possessed. Nick Barmby, their most influential player other than Juninho, was absent through a recurrence of an Achilles tendon injury.
Conditions were wretched, as cold certainly as Juninho has encountered since he came to England. Snow was piled around the perimeter and the pitch had a covering of frost even before the start. However, he seemed untroubled by this alien climate and, if anything, his balance and light physique were probably points in his favour.
In the circumstances, it was all the more extraordinary that arguably the most ungainly player on the field should be responsible for giving Birmingham such a wonderful, start.
At 6ft 7in, Francis stands 14 inches taller than Juninho but even his most ardent fan would have to concede that he is dwarfed by technical comparison. And yet, with every factor seemingly against him, he controlled Steve Claridge's first-time pass in the 11th minute and, even from a wide angle from the right, was able to place a shot beyond the reach of goalkeeper Gary Walsh, the ball bobbling in at the far post. Jamie Pollock hung his head as Francis led the home side's celebrations, having seen his misdirected pass, intercepted by Claridge.
Seven minutes later, Francis doubled Birmingham's lead, taking advantage of woeful Middlesbrough marking to beat Walsh again with a powerful header after Claridge had crossed from deep on the right.
The goals rendered Middlesbrough's task hugely difficult and although they dominated possession they could rarely pose a serious threat to Ian Bennett in the Birmingham goal. One second-half header directed narrowly wide by Pollock was as close as they went to a reply.
Robson said afterwards: "We paid dearly for giving the ball away in crucial positions but all credit to Birmingham. They defended their lead comfortably in the end."
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Bennett; Poole, Edwards, Daish, Frain; Hunt, Hill (Barnes, 88), Forsyth, Richardson; Claridge, Francis (Donowa, 72). Substitute not used: Rushfeldt.
Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Walsh; Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whyte, Fleming (Moore, h-t); Stamp, Pollock, Juninho; Hendrie, Fjortoft. Substitutes not used: Liddle, Miller (gk).
Referee: M Pierce (Portsmouth).
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