There was nothing concrete upon which to link Birmingham City winning the League Cup with their relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season, of course, but it didn’t stop some from asserting exactly this and it hasn’t stopped panicky-looking managers whose main ambition for this season is to finish seventeenth in the Premier League from effectively binning England’s second cup competition. Norwich City, Swansea City and Queens Park Rangers were all knocked out of it in the First Round, and it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the first thing to cross the mind of al three managers upon the final whistle of their matches against against Milton Keynes Dons, Shrewsbury Town and Rochdale was, “mission accomplished”.
If a club is to progress, however, European football should surely be the next step up the ladder and, considering that the Champions League is all bar out of the question for anybody apart from what we may come to know as The Pre-Ordained Six, The Europa League may be about as good as things are going to get for the foreseeable future for the rest of the Premier League. UEFA haven’t helped the “prestige” of this competition in recent years, though. In the way that those that run the game will always find a way to take the shine off the trophies that are meant to be their pride and joy. The Europa League now resembles the football equivalent of the bride of Wildensteen – puffed up and artificially enhanced beyond recognition. We all know that it will now most likely now pall in comparison with the Champions League in perpetuity, but its name change in 2009 was unnecessary tinkering which wiped away a little of the varnish of historical importance that it had held, and continuing insistence of UEFA of inserting an unnecessarily bloated group stage into it hints at, if anything, a competition that they would sooner not be holding in the first place.
Earlier this evening, the two poles of the competition could be to the fullest extent. Tottenham Hotspur, whose one season of qualification for the Champions League seems to have allowed the perception to take hold that they should perpetually qualify for it, played out a dull goalless draw in Salonika that were lucky not to lose. At the other end of the spectrum, however, Stoke City travelled to Ukraine and played out a 1-1 draw against Dynamo Kiev which only saw the home side draw level with thirty seconds of the ninety minutes left to play. Stoke’s performance was as bloody-minded as we have come to expect from them over the last couple of years or so, but they were well worth their draw and they will continue t confound and frustrate throughout the rest of the group stages, no doubt, whether they qualify from it or not.
Tonight at St Andrews, though, Birmingham City had to face up to a formidable challenge. SC Braga were the runners-up in this very competition last season, and they had qualified for that by breaking the spell of the traditional Portuguese top three of Sporting, Benfica and Porto by finishing as runners-up in the Primeira Liga the year before. Birmingham, meanwhile, have had a scrappy start to the season, although a comfortable win against Millwall last weekend lifted them up to mid-table in the Championship. After just four minutes this evening, they created a great chance, with Marlon King breaking on the right-hand side and tucking the ball in to Adam Rooney, but Rooney’s shot flew narrowly wide of the post. It was a miss that they had cause to regret three minutes later, when Braga took the lead. There seemed no immediate danger from Uwa Echiejile’s ball in from the left, but Helder Barbosa’s left-footed volley from the edge of the penalty area was an absolute delight, into the top corner and leaving Boaz Myhill, the Birmingham goalkeeper, grasping at air.
It felt for a while as if this early goal might see the unravelling of whatever confidence Chris Hughton may have been able shake into his team prior to kick-off. Braga, giving off the air of not being content with playing out eighty-three minutes for a one goal win, continued to throw men forward and Myhill was called upon again to palm away a Hugo Viana free-kick. Still, though, they were able to stabilise, regain their composure and create a couple of chances of their own, most notably when Nathan Redmond’s shot had to be pushed away by the Braga goalkeeper and, let’s face it, an obvious favourite of the more puerile viewer, Quim. Still, though, the differences between the two teams were as clear as day under the glare of the St Andrews floodlights. Birmingham City looked unpolished, full of energy and effort but lacking a great deal of creative wit. Half-time arrived with a feeling of “so near, yet so far” encircling St Andrews.
The second half began with more of the same. Never short of endeavour, Birmingham pushed forward in pursuit of a equaliser, but their hard work was all too often let down by one miscued pass, one ill-judged run or an attempt at ball control which ends in the ball squirming away from its intended recipient. Braga weathered this storm, and after fifty-eight minutes delivered a sucker punch. A chipped ball through finds Nuno Gomes, who was smothered to the ground, only for the ball to fall extraordinarily kindly for Lima, who drove the ball into Myhill’s goal off the underside of the crossbar. Still, though, Birnmingham kept pushing, even though those sucker punches seemed to have greater venom to them than the steady onslaught. Myhill was forced into two smart saves, one low to his left. With twenty minutes to play, though, they found a route back into the match. In a flash, Chris Burke turned past his defender and placed a simple, low cross over for King to roll over the line from a couple of yards out.
For the first time in the evening, Braga started to look reasonably shaken. Even with a two goal deficit to have to pull back, the crowd had not given up on the home side and their exhortations seemed to entice Birmingham forward with greater confidence. With ten minutes to play, seventeen year-old Nathan Redmond curled a twenty yard shot which Quim – albeit somewhat hamfistedly – had to paw over the crossbar. Three minutes later, a scramble inside the penalty area led to optimistic shouts for a back-pass and an indirect free-kick. Then, with a couple of minutes left to play, the knock-out blow. Birmingham, with too many players committed forward, were caught out by a break on the right-hand side and Barbosa scored from close range to finish this tie off.
A disappointing, then, if not completely unexpected evening for Birmingham City. Chris Hughton’s team were far from out-played this evening, yet the clinical finishing of a team that got all the way to the final of this competition last year proved to be enough to draw a clear line between the two sides tonight. They have five more matches to play in the group stages of this tournament, so there is still time for them to pull something out of the hat, but it feels as if qualification from this group will be a tall order having lost their first match at home. Still, though, there was something understatedly pleasing about this evening’s match; a club that saw the return one of England’s European pioneers – Birmingham City were, of course, amongst the first English clubs to get their teeth into the Inter Cities Fairs Cup – to a stage from which they have been absent for half a century, and an evening free of the hubris that accompanies every single Champions League match these days. Outplayed on the night, but not out of the tournament yet, Birmingham City emerged from this evening with a considerable amount of their pride intact, if not the result they were hoping for.
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