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Birmingham City 1 Saints 0
NOW comes the real test for Saints and their head coach, Mark Wotte.
Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Birmingham ended the club’s three-match winning streak.
That was a run that had generated not only great confidence among the players, but belief for the fans that survival was a real possibility.
Since taking over, Wotte has clearly found something in the squad that his predecessor Jan Poortvliet couldn’t.
But the true test of how far Saints have come under his leadership was always going to arrive when their run of victories was ended.
And it was firmly halted at St Andrew’s by an efficient Birmingham display.
SAINTS didn’t play badly, but they struggled with the physicality and strength of a powerful Birmingham side, who were deserved winners. Mark Wotte’s men now enter a crucial spell in their battle for survival and must make sure this defeat is nothing more than a minor setback.Gordon Simpson
Saints have enjoyed a good two weeks, despite Saturday’s loss, but for all the fine work they have put in they are still in the relegation zone, two points behind Barnsley, who have two games in hand, and four behind Nottingham Forest.
Other sides around them continue to pick up points and, although Saints have pulled themselves back into the fight, the situation is still critical.
So much so, that any adverse reaction to this first setback in the last few weeks could have a disastrous effect.
Saints are now entering a crucial week, with Derby at home tomorrow, followed by Saturday’s visit of QPR. That leads off a five-match spell that also sees them face fellow strugglers Blackpool, Charlton and Watford.
A good week, with two home wins, would see the confidence continue to flourish and give Saints a wonderful chance of survival.
A bad week – or even an indifferent one – could see the club cut adrift, with little time to salvage the situation.
When Saints beat Preston 3-1 last month, they allowed that success to snowball into a brilliant run.
By the same token, they simply cannot afford to let Saturday’s defeat set off a series of bad results.
Any such domino effect would be disastrous, especially with the rich form of fellow strugglers.
There is no doubt that Saints deserved to lose on Saturday.
They were second best to a powerful Birmingham side that look intent on winning promotion back to the Premiership.
Saints couldn’t handle the brute strength that is present throughout Alex McLeish’s team and the wealth of experience all over the park for the Blues was also a huge advantage for them.
Saints were far from bad and there were some bright spots, but there was always a feeling Birmingham had them at arm’s length.
However, if there was one very encouraging sign it was that Saints battled – from the first whistle until the last.
Whereas earlier in the season they may have capitulated, on Saturday they fought for everything.
They just came up against a better side that played to a higher level.
But between now and the end of the season, and particularly in the next five games, Saints will need to show that same spirit and show it in abundance.
If they can do that, and not let their confidence dip, then brighter times should still lie ahead.
It was a lively start to the game at St Andrew’s, with both sides intent on creating chances.
Marek Saganowski had the first, as Lloyd James’ low cross in the second minute found him in the box. The Polish striker swept a right foot shot towards goal, but with Maik Taylor desperately scrambling to get across to it, the ball went agonisingly wide.
Cameron Jerome nearly got on the end of Franck Queudrue’s cross in the tenth minute, but Jan- Paul Saeijs made a crucial intervention at the near post.
Saints almost took the lead a minute later, as Saeijs’ header across goal from Simon Gillett’s corner was nodded off the line by Stephen Carr.
McLeish had to replace an injured Marcus Bent with Carlos Costly after 18 minutes.
Kelvin Davis almost suffered an embarrassing moment in the 23rd minute. The keeper came out of his box to try to clear a long ball, but it bounced over his head and only a brilliant last-ditch tackle from Saeijs stopped Jerome tapping in.
One of the key moments came in the 26th minute, as Jason Euell and Lee Carsley suffered a clash of heads. The City midfielder had to leave the field for over ten minutes for stitches and bandages.
Although Radhi Jaidi nearly turned Saganowski’s cutback into his own net in the 36th minute, Saints couldn’t capitalise on the man advantage.
It proved costly, as Carsley rejoined the game and Birmingham exerted huge pressure on Saints.
It looked as if they might hold out until the break, but just as the two minutes of stoppage time was announced, Jerome muscled his way into the box and squared for Keith Fahey, who had time to pick his spot to score.
It was a nightmare time for Saints to concede and it was always going to be an uphill battle to come back against a well-organised Birmingham side.
Wotte replaced David McGoldrick with Matt Paterson at half-time, but it was Birmingham who continued to look the more dangerous. Only Chris Perry’s brilliant sliding tackle on Jerome prevented him doubling their lead in the 56th minute.
Classy Sebastian Larsson had a chance to embarrass Davis, after his free-kick from wide right went straight to the Swede, but he couldn’t direct his shot from the halfway line as the keeper scrambled back.
Simon Gillett and Paterson both hit long-range shots straight at Taylor, while Davis saved brilliantly from Costly.
Saints tried everything in the closing stages, including pushing Saeijs up front.
Scott Sinclair’s brilliant solo run ended with him hitting the post in the last minute, but Birmingham held on comfortably.