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Football: Late-season worries for second-best Blues; Portsmouth 3 Birmingham City 1.

Byline: Josh Ball at Fratton Park

Birmingham City's season is rapidly coming apart at the seams.

This defeat dropped them to eighth in the Premiership and Steve Bruce's team have won only one of their last five matches; that was at home to strugglers Leeds United.

A season which was brimming with promise a month ago threatens to end in nothing more than a whimper.

Most worrying for Bruce will have been the manner of his side's defeat. They didn't just lose to their hosts, they were comprehensively beaten by Harry Redknapp's men.

Even before Maik Taylor was sent off for handling the ball outside the penalty area, Birmingham looked second best.

Deprived of Stan Lazaridis and Martin Grainger and carrying a half-fit Robbie Savage, Blues lacked drive and creativity.

With no real winger, their main source of attack was to thump the ball up the middle to try to turn Pompey's defence.

It wasn't a tactic that ever threatened to worry the opposition's central defenders, Dejan Stefanovic and Arjan De Zeeuw. Against the diminutive Stern John and an out-of-sorts Mikael Forssell, there was only ever going to be one winner.

Portsmouth, in contrast, always looked like a side in control. They are a hard team to beat at home at the best of times and yesterday Redknapp got his tactics just right.

Playing five across the middle and up against a distinctly below-par Savage, Portsmouth had full control of the ball.

This in turn allowed Eyal Berkovic to play as a third frontman and he, along with Lomana Tresor Lua Lua and Ayegbeni Yakubu, ran Birmingham's back four ragged.

Despite all that, though, the first 45 minutes was largely forgettable. Neither side settled and in a scrappy opening, it was referee Barry Knight's whistle which grabbed most of the attention.

But everything changed in first-half stoppage time as, out of nothing, the match came to life. Yakubu chased a harmlesslooking long ball and caused just enough confusion between goalkeeper Taylor and his namesake, defender Martin, to force the custodian to handle outside his area.

Yakubu collected the ball and slotted it into the empty net, unaware that Mr Knight had already blown his whistle for handball.

The decision infuriated everyone. Managers, fans, and players.

Portsmouth were furious at being denied a goal and Birmingham were furious because they were about to lose a player.

When order had been restored, Knight rightly dismissed Taylor and, fortunately for the referee, Birmingham's first task was to pick Stefanovic's free-kick out of the back of the net.

Down to ten men, Birmingham were always likely to struggle in the second half. Their task was made even harder when they lost Savage just before the hour as the midfielder was replaced by Steven Clemence.

By that time, Portsmouth could have already had a second goal. Two minutes after Savage's departure, they did.

As Birmingham pushed forward, Portsmouth broke from the back through Lua Lua and although his first attempt was blocked by Matthew Upson, he made no mistake with his second. The introduction of Clemence gave some life to Birmingham and they briefly pulled themselves back into the match with a goal by John but any hopes of a revival were dashed by a second controversial decision by Mr Knight.

If Birmingham felt hard doneby with the sending-off, the penalty decision merely added insult to injury.

Once again, it was Lua Lua who did the damage. Breaking into the Birmingham penalty area, he took the ball to the by-line and his cut-back hit Kenny Cunningham on the hand. It was unintentional on the defender's part and harsh on Bruce's men.

Yakubu made no mistake with the spot kick and from then on, the result was never in doubt.

Birmingham will point to the two refereeing decisions that went against them and say they were unlucky.

But it was more than that and, although injury also played a part, Portsmouth were worthy winners.

Birmingham have a difficult run-in, not in terms of opposition but, with Europe looking increasingly unlikely, the temptation to let the season finish aimlessly will be one they will have to work hard to overcome.

Scorers: Stefanovic (45) 1-0; Lua Lua (62) 2-0; John (67) 2-1; Yakuba (pen, 73) 3-1.

PORTSMOUTH (3-5-2): Hislop; Primus (Pasanen, 50), Stefanovic, De Zeeuw; Taylor, Faye (Harper, 80), Smertin, Stone, Berkovic (Quashie, 74); Lua Lua, Yakubu. Subs: Watenaar, Sheringham.

BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Cunningham, Martin Taylor, Upson, Tebily (Bennett, 45); Clapham, Johnson, Hughes, Savage (Clemence, 57); Forssell (Morrison, 75), John.

Referee: B Knight (Kent). Bookings: Portsmouth --Quashie (foul); Blues --Clemence (foul).

Sending-off: Blues --Maik Taylor (professional foul).

Attendance: 20104. Blues man of the match: Kenny Cunningham --another solid display.

CAPTION(S):

Kenny Cunningham shows his feelings of despair after Portsmouth take the lead at Fratton Park yesterday; Steve Bruce is sympathetic after Maik Taylor is sent off
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 13, 2004
Words:811
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