Birmingham City 3 Middlesbrough 0
Birmingham City despatched relegation rivals Middlesbrough in clinical fashion, giving manager Alex McLeish his first taste of victory on home soil.
A terrible own goal from England midfielder Stewart Downing started the rot for Gareth Southgate’s side while a Mikael Forssell strike just before half time and a last-minute Gary McSheffrey penalty gave Blues the crucial three points.
Not only did it end a sequence of three home matches without a victory, it was also Blues’ first clean sheet in 12 games and the defensive frailties that were so evident at the Reebok Stadium three days before had disappeared.
The timing of the win could not have been better as before long Blues will embark on a three-game sequence against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
McLeish promised changes after the disappointing defeat at Bolton and duly delivered with Johan Djourou, who made an horrendous mistake for Bolton’s second goal last Saturday, dropping to the bench while Mat Sadler and Rafael Schmitz were left out completely.
In came Franck Queudrue to face his former side and Liam Ridgewell after his one-game ban. The most notable inclusion was Forssell in attack as a long overdue partner for the overworked Cameron Jerome as Blues changed to a more attacking formation against their relegation rivals.
Since his arrival, McLeish has been preaching the importance of Blues making a fast, high-tempo start to games but in the opening ten minutes they looked like a side that was short on confidence, having lost nine of their last 12 games and having picked up only one point from their last three games at St Andrew's.
In contrast, Middlesbrough were enjoying their best run of form on their travels for three years, having won one and drawn two of their last three away games, and had ended Arsenal’s unbeaten league record only a couple of weeks ago. Jeremie Aliadiere looked bright from the start but shot straight at Maik Taylor in the Blues goal on two occasions when he should have done better.
While the visitors looked bright in open play, especially on the break, they struggled to penetrate a Blues defence bolstered by the return of Radhi Jaidi and the hosts began to grow in confidence.
While Blues never really looked like creating much from open play they were always a menace from set pieces and took the lead in fortuitous fashion.
It had been Blues who had been bearing gifts at Bolton but this time they were on the receiving end as Downing gift-wrapped the opening goal in embarrassing fashion.
Julio Arca was booked for a rash challenge on McSheffrey wide on the touchline and the Blues winger swung in a fierce, low free kick which should have been dealt with but Downing’s attempted clearance sliced off his left boot and flew past Mark Schwarzer into the net at the near post.
Downing tried to make amends immediately after and he almost capitalised when McSheffrey lost the ball on the halfway line but his shot was again straight at Taylor.
Middlesbrough also missed the best chance of the half on 40 minutes when Fabio Rochemback swung a free kick into the box and Tuncay Sanli was presented with a free header from eight yards out but his effort was again straight at Taylor.
Blues made the visitors pay for their wastefulness in front of goal by doubling their lead just before half time. Again it was a set piece that proved decisive as Seb Larsson’s corner was flicked on by Jerome and Forssell stabbed the ball home at the back post.
The game wasn’t one for the purists and the football was even more ragged in the second half.
Blues struggled to find any rhythm with their passing but more than made up for it with their tenacity, grit and determination and, as the game wore on, Middlesbrough visibly began to fade, although Maik Taylor produced a stunning one-handed save to push a Sanli shot over the bar.
The Turkish international striker was the visitors’ biggest threat but the Blues defence, especially Stephen Kelly, was outstanding.
Blues should have killed off Middlesbrough long before McSheffrey’s penalty. They broke away on several occasions but did not produce the quality required to take advantage.
Jerome, in particular, was clean through on goal after substitute Gary O’Connor had flicked on a throw-in but he sliced his shot wide with only Schwarzer to beat.
McSheffrey sealed the victory when, in the last minute of added time, he brilliantly cut in off the touchline and beat two defenders before being tripped by Robert Huth.
Referee Mark Halsey pointed to the spot and McSheffrey sent Schwarzer the wrong way for his second goal of the season.
Scorers: Downing (og, 22), Forssell (45), McSheffrey (pen, 90).
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Kelly, Jaidi, Ridgewell, Queudrue; McSheffrey, Muamba, Johnson, Larsson (Nafti, 82); Jerome, Forssell (O’Connor, 77). Subs: Doyle, Djourou, De Ridder.
MIDDLESBROUGH: Schwarzer; Young, Wheater (Huth, 46), Woodgate, Pogatetz, Boateng, Rochemback, Arca (Johnson, 70), Downing, Sanli, Aliadiere (Lee, 46). Subs: Turnbull, Shawky.
Referee: Mark Halsey (Lancashire).
Bookings: Blues — McSheffrey; Middlesbrough — Arca, Woodgate.
Blues man of the match: Stephen Kelly — defensively, he never put a foot wrong.