Middlesbrough 1 Birmingham City 0

Steve McClaren incongruously stated that this was the start of the season for every Premiership team during his post-match press conference.

Sub-zero temperatures, a distinct lack of optimism among supporters and a dreadful playing surface ensured this match bore no resemblance to a balmy Saturday in August. But you knew exactly what he was driving at.

The theory behind his rhetoric was that, while a host of issues are unresolved in the Premiership, the sands of time are running out.

On that basis, Birmingham's lack of firepower must be causing Steve Bruce, the Birmingham City manager, countless sleepless nights.

To a certain extent the latest partnership between David Dunn and Emile Heskey was effective in that it afforded Birmingham's most gifted player a central role.

Dunn was at the fulcrum of all Birmingham's fluid attacking movement but the end product was the same.

Bruce's side controlled the majority of possession and delivered a reasonable performance.

However, they are in grave danger of being lulled into a sense of false security. The history of the Premiership is littered with sides that were relegated after appearing too good to go down.

Forget all the peripherals that occur on a football pitch, all that really matters is what happens in both penalty areas. This season Birmingham have made too many mistakes in both 18-yard boxes and hence are still in the relegation zone.

On at least half a dozen occasions this season Bruce could compile a convincing case that his side deserved at least a point in terms of possession and chances created. Both fixtures with Charlton Athletic, the matches at Newcastle United and Tottenham Hostpur as well as home games against Everton and West Ham United could well have lifted Birmingham out of the relegation zone if chances had been converted.

However, as well as missed opportunities, defensive errors have also cost them dear and the blue brick wall o f old has long since disintegrated.

There is no denying that this team has been bedevilled by injury problems this season; that is a fact. Yet it would be ill-advised to blame defeats such as this one on bad luck.

Blues enjoyed lengthy passages of possession in the second half but lacked a central midfielder to make a decisive forward pass or penetrating run other than Dunn.

The lack of a cutting edge allowed a distinctly off-colour Middlesbrough to funnel back and defend in depth while pretty patterns were weaved in front of them.

But there were opportunities and Heskey missed a gilt-edged chance.

Mario Melchiot delivered a searching cross that deceived Chris Riggott and landed straight on Heskey's head. However, he appeared surprised and guided his header wide from point-blank range.

Dunn's wall-pass with Jer-maine Pennant afforded him a chance which Mark Schwarzer blocked before Birmingham's fallibility in defence proved to be their undoing.

Alex Bruce hardly put a foot wrong gall afternoon but, on the one occasion he did, it proved costly. Yakubu had wriggled away from him ten minutes before the interval but poked the ball wide of Maik Taylor's goal. However, when Mark Viduka swivelled his way past Bruce in first-half stoppage time and finished with aplomb it was another hard luck story waiting to happen.

It would be unfair to point the finger solely at Bruce, though, as Lee Cattermole was allowed far too much freedom to deliver the telling pass into Viduka's considerable frame.

After half time McClaren reverted to type and left Yakubu in isolation up front as Birmingham poured forward in search of an equaliser. Despite all their toil and endeavour they fashioned only one opportunity of note after virtually setting up camp in Middlesbrough's half.

Dunn's far-post header from the impressive Julian Gray's cross was expertly saved by Schwarzer, who was not unduly troubled again.

No-one could accuse this team of not trying but Bruce faces a huge dilemma in the summer, whatever division Birmingham are in.

Take Heskey and Viduka for example. Heskey won virtually every aerial battle, is an excellent link man, works his socks off and cares passionately about the club.

On the other hand, Viduka's body language was as poor as his first touch and noone could ever accuse the chunky Australian of burning himself out through excessive workrate.

Yet Heskey's opportunity to score was far easier than Viduka's and, for all his faults, Viduka is a clinical finisher.

Mikael Forssell was going to be Bruce's Viduka, Yakubu and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink all rolled into one, but this has been a season of rehabilitation for him.

Walter Pandiani didn't work and D J Campbell is still finding his feet at Premiership level. Chris Sutton has a goal-scoring pedigree but he has been disappointing over the last month. Problems persist for Bruce.

Bruce has tried to incorporate flair players who didn't correspond with his work ethic over the last two seasons and he consigned that idea to the dustbin. It remains to be seen whether he would make an exception to the rule next term for a player of Viduka's ilk - lazy but can score goals.

However, Bruce has more pressing matters at hand and a win against Albion next week is of paramount importance.

If he can incorporate Dunn and Jiri Jarosik on the pitch their chances of scoring will be greatly enhanced. But he has been bitten before by adopting a carefree policy - there promises to be a few more sleepless nights for Bruce before Saturday's behe-moth of a fixture.