Birmingham missed a priceless chance to put daylight between themselves and possible relegation rivals Fulham at St Andrew's yesterday, failing to beat opponents reduced to 10 men before half-time when Rufus Brevett handled on the goal-line and nine when Steve Marlet was dismissed inside the last 11 minutes.
Edwin van der Sar saved Stern John's 37th-minute penalty that resulted from Brevett's misdemeanour and Birmingham's subsequent inability to break down the beleaguered London side, desperate to avoid a fifth consecutive defeat in the Premiership, leaves them still trailing Jean Tigana's team on goal difference in 15th place, a precarious four points above the bottom three.
Their frustration was made worse when substitute Clinton Morrison believed he had headed a stoppage time winner only for his celebrations to be cut short by an offside flag.
It was also a costly afternoon for Welsh interests, Birmingham midfielder Robbie Savage suffering a groin injury that looks certain to rule him out of Wednesday's Euro 2004 qualifier in Azerbaijan. "He will report to the Welsh doctor but if we had a game on Wednesday he would be struggling," Steve Bruce, the Birmingham City manager, said. "He might not even make next Saturday."
In the circumstances, Fulham might have been relieved to escape with a point after a nosedive in the table that has seen them win only one match in nine, in contrast with their progress to the third round of the Uefa Cup. But coach Jean Tigana was dismayed by the performance of referee Matt Messias, complaining that Savage should have also been sent off for the lunge from behind on Marlet that provoked a retaliatory kick from the French striker. Savage, whose performance was typically committed, escaped with a yellow, although it will trigger a suspension as it is his fifth of the season.
"Marlet deserved to go but so did Savage because the tackle from behind should be punished with a sending-off," Tigana said. "Why does this rule not apply in the Premiership? For Savage it is not the first time. If the referees do not protect the players then the football is nothing."
Tigana had no complaint about the red card shown to Brevett after he had used his hand to stop Darren Purse's glancing header and every reason to be grateful for Van der Sar's fine form. Not only did the Dutchman keep the penalty out, he also made several other critical saves.
The first came after only four minutes when Geoff Horsfield, having left three Fulham defenders for dead, looked certain to score against his former club only for Van der Sar to push the shot away. Later, Van der Sar kept out a point-blank header by Purse and tipped away a Horsfield flick. "We should have won but we are just lacking that cutting edge," Bruce said.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Vaesen 5; Tebily 6 (Hughes 75, 5), Purse 7, Cunningham 6, Kenna 5; Devlin 6, Savage 8 (Kirovski 82), Cisse 6, Lazaridis 4; John 5 (Morrison 75, 6), Horsfield 7. Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk), Powell.
Fulham (4-4-2): Van der Sar 8; Finnan 7, Melville 6, Goma 7, Brevett 5; Goldbaek 5 (Inamoto 85), Legwinski 6 (Djetou 60, 5), Clark 7, Malbranque 5; Boa Morte 5 (Knight 71, 5), Marlet 5. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Sava.
Referee: M Messias 6 (York).
Sendings-off: Fulham: Brevett, Marlet. Bookings: Birmingham: Devlin, Savage; Fulham: Finnan.
Man of the match: Van der Sar (Fulham).
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