Chelsea 1 Birmingham City 1
Birmingham City only tend to perform well against the better teams, which, given that they have lost more matches than they have won this season, suggests that there are more bad teams in the Premiership than good ones.
Their 1-1 draw away to Chelsea on Saturday was a surprise to those who do not watch Birmingham regularly but it was no surprise to those supporters and journalists who tend to keep tabs on what is happening at St Andrew's.
Blues did not deserve to lose 1-0 at home to Chelsea last August so this draw, far from being unexpected, was in accordance with pre-match predictions.
The surprise, perhaps, was that Birmingham allowed their lead, supplied by Walter Pandiani in the 65th minute, to slip away when Didier Drogba equalised in the 82nd minute. You would think that Steve Bruce, the Birmingham manager, would be happy with the point but he seemed to be consumed by anticlimax. This almost felt like a defeat.
"The way we defended, I thought we were comfortable," Bruce said. "We were even a bit disappointed not to win but I suppose a draw here's not bad. With ten minutes to go you're thinking, 'can we go on and do it'? But I thought we thoroughly deserved the point. You know that they've got such quality, they're a class act, but I'm proud of my lads, they deserved it."
Chelsea are perhaps the best team in the world at the moment but their superiority is not so great that they can take victories for granted. They did not work as hard as Birmingham on Saturday and, significantly, did not dominate the midfield.
While one was fearing what Frank Lampard might do in the centre of the field for Chelsea, it was Mehdi Nafti, the Tunisia international, who became the key figure for Birmingham. And to think that Nafti has barely completed a Premiership match since moving to the club in January.
This was a tactical success for Bruce. Pack the midfield with reliable players who can defend and watch Chelsea become frustrated. It worked - until the final ten minutes when Chelsea threatened to run away with the three points, never mind one.
Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, did not attempt a smile all afternoon, which perhaps sums up how well Birmingham performed. "It was difficult," Mourinho said. "We didn't start well and we gave away the first half. We didn't play football, it was at a low pace and low on quality.
"The second half was different because we put pressure on, created chances, but they fought a lot and defended very well. The players are not robots. they need mental rest as well as physical. It's not easy after the Champions League."
Towards the end, Chelsea peppered the Blues goal with crosses and shots but never really looked like adding to the goal by Drogba. The draw, perhaps, was a fair result.
And to think that Birmingham could - should - have been two goals ahead even before Chelsea started to break sweat. Early in the second half, Darren Carter seemed set to score from close range but was denied when
goalkeeper Petr Cech saved superbly.
But Birmingham remained patient and took the lead in the 65th minute. Jermaine Pennant's free-kick seemed too long but somehow Matthew Upson, impressive throughout, headed the ball across the face of the goal for Pandiani to score with a fierce half-volley. The ball hit John Terry, smacked the underside of the crossbar, but bounced down and trickled over the goal-line.
Birmingham continued to make hard work look effortless but it became a close-run thing. Eidur Gudjohnsen headed the ball over the bar from inside the six-yard box,
while Lampard shot wide from close range when greater composure was required. Maik Taylor, the Birmingham goalkeeper, did not have a serious save to make.
But then came that final ten minutes that, from Birmingham's point of view, seemed to last an eternity. With eight minutes remaining, with the Birmingham defence caught square, Lampard fed Drogba who neatly placed the ball into the far corner of the goal.
Bruce would certainly have taken the draw had it been offered before the match but perhaps he did not expect his team to perform so admirably, so cleverly, against supreme opposition. Nafti was brilliant at the heart of the midfield, as were Upson and Kenny Cunningham at the heart of the defence.
There was even a time when Bruce became brave in his decision-making. He took off Carter and put on the more direct, more skilful, Stan Lazaridis and watched with pleasure as Birmingham seemed to make the Chelsea supporters nervous. Until the final ten minutes, the Birmingham supporters seemed relaxed, almost as if defeat was never part of the equation.
Of course, Chelsea will no doubt point out that their European exertions the previous Wednesday had left them jaded and short of incentives.
They will no doubt point out that they are entering a part of the season where results are more important than performances.
This all may well be true but Birmingham have proved that they are better than their Premiership position suggests. All they need to do is perform as well against the poor teams
as they do against the fine teams and they will surely prove that they are a fine team themselves.
Until then, one will remain baffled at how a team can lose so horribly to Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion, yet perform so astutely against Chelsea and Liverpool.
Scorers: Pandiani (65) 0-1; Drogba (82) 1-1.
CHELSEA (4-4-2): Cech; G Johnson (Jarosik, 69), Huth, Terry, Gallas; Lampard, Smertin (Gudjohnsen, 46), Cole, Duff; Tiago, Kezman (Drogba,46). Substitutes: Ricardo Carvalho, Cudicini. BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Melchiot, Cunningham, Upson, Clapham; D Johnson, Carter (Lazaridis, 60), Nafti, Pennant (Gray,
80); Heskey, Pandiani (Morrison, 87). Substitutes: Blake, Vaesen. Referee: C J Foy (Merseyside). Bookings: Chelsea - Cole, Tiago (fouls); Birmingham - Cunningham, Nafti (fouls).
Attendance: 42,031. Birmingham man of the match: Mehdi Nafti - rarely gave the ball away and looked composed and confident at the heart of the Birmingham midfield.