Championship: Plymouth Argyle 0 Birmingham City 1
Birmingham City proved that it is possible to suffer from jet-lag after a 45-minute flight at Home Park.
Alex McLeish and his promotion-chasing side flew from Birmingham International Airport to Exeter Airport yesterday morning in preparation for this fixture in Devon.
However the decision to take the trip to the West Country in style wasn’t one that paid dividends for Birmingham as they produced an embarrassingly unconvincing first-half performance.
The visiting side’s second half improved a fraction and captain Lee Carsley’s debut goal for the club, and his first since scoring past Birmingham for Everton in November 2007, handed McLeish’s team a victory they scarcely deserved.
Birmingham are always capable of putting on an attacking master-class but for the first 45 minutes they produced a defensive horror-show.
It was remarkable how they held on to their clean sheet at the break and even more incredible how they remained unbreached after 90 minutes.
Plymouth Argyle made sure that Maik Taylor in the Birmingham goal was the hardest working man on the field but it failed to earn the unlucky Pilgrims anything.
McLeish was forced to make one change from the side that beat Watford at St Andrew’s on Saturday and, not for the first time this season, it involved a full-back starting as a makeshift wide midfielder. Against Wolves David Murphy was asked to play left midfield in place of Sebastian Larsson and on this occasion Stuart Parnaby was deemed the man to start at right midfield in place of the Sweden international, who was ruled out with a groin strain.
There was also the unexpected sight of Damien Johnson on the bench, a result of McLeish’s illness and injury-ravaged squad.
Club captain Johnson has not played since the deflated 4-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers on the final day of last season – which signalled relegation – due to a back injury, and having not even taken part in a warm-up game since, McLeish was forced to name the Northern Irishman amongst his substitutes. Birmingham’s back four were looking worryingly lethargic early on so it was a good job that Maik Taylor was awake to keep out long-range efforts from Paul Gallagher and Marcel Seip.
Just like the flu bug that had swept through Birmingham’s Wast Hills training ground in recent weeks, lethargy was starting to spread further afield than the visitors’ defence and ball retention was proving impossible up front.
Plymouth, who had shown poor form leading into this fixture, were enjoying themselves, forwards Gallagher and Rory Fallon were linking up well and Jamie Mackie was a menace down the right channel for the Pilgrims. On-loan Blackburn striker Gallagher sent a tantalising overhead kick, from Fallon’s flick-on, narrowly over the Birmingham goal shortly before the half-an-hour mark.
Unacceptable defending from Martin Taylor, Radhi Jaidi and Franck Queudrue continued to invite pressure from Plymouth, Fallon headed straight into Maik Taylor’s grasp from close range and Luke Summerfield’s deflected shot, off Parnaby, sailed just wide.
McLeish breathed a huge sigh of relief to see his side head into the interval with their clean sheet miraculously intact because after witnessing his own side’s penalty area be bombarded by eight first-half corners and Plymouth goalkeeper Romain Larrieu leave the field without a single bead of sweat on his brow, it was, putting it bluntly, relegation rather than promotion form.
If Jaidi was hoping to make amends for his defensive errors with his attacking prowess after the break, he was mistaken. During Birmingham’s first moment of note in Plymouth’s final third, the Tunisian lumped a golden scoring opportunity wide of the mark from three yards following Nigel Quashie’s corner.
However, Birmingham did manage to open the scoring in the 62nd minute and it came from the unlikeliest source. After Quincy Owusu-Abeyie had rattled the underside of the bar seconds earlier, Carsley picked up Kemy Agustien’s pass 25-yards out and fired a stinging low shot in off Larrieu’s far post.
From then on Plymouth desperately pushed forward in search of an equaliser, Mackie missed out with two decent efforts before Gallagher clipped over from five yards.
Jaidi even managed to miss from three yards again, this time at his own end, from Craig Noone’s low cross.
Somehow the luck managed to remain firmly on Birmingham’s side.
Scorer: Carsley (62).
Plymouth Argyle (4-4-1-1): Romain Larrieu; Clark, Timar, Seip, Barker, Mackie, Summerfield (MacLean, 90), Walton, Paterson (Noone, 73); Gallagher; Fallon. Substitutes: Folly, Cathcart, Marin.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Hunt, Jaidi, Martin Taylor, Queudrue (Agustien, 48); Parnaby, Carsley, Quashie, Owusu-Abeyie; Phillips (Jerome, 68), Bent. Substitutes: Doyle, Nafti, Johnson.
Referee: Kevin Wright (Cambridgeshire).
Bookings: Plymouth – Fallon (persistent fouling).