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Meldrum's verdict: AFC Bournemouth 0 Birmingham City 2
IT was all Lee Clark could do to take his eyes off the scoreboard in the corner of the Main Stand as the clock ticked down here.
Presumably, when the nerves had abated, Clark found time to register a mild chuckle at the nature of this victory.
It was comedy that Jasper Carrott, rumoured to have watched from the stands at Dean Court, and Lenny Henry would have been proud of.
It was, however, no laughing matter for Eddie Howe. One victory in nine and no home wins since October’s 5-2 thrashing of Millwall is all too serious.
This season has now become about survival. The big defeats at Watford and Huddersfield are now firmly behind this team and they should have plenty in reserve when March and April bloom. Frustratingly, though, the cumbersome Blues were there for the taking.
Time and again, Howe’s men tore into them, breaking with pace and power. Time and again they failed to find that cutting edge when it mattered in front of goal. They were also denied by an inspired Darren Randolph in the Blues goal.
By the time Cherries settled, of course, they were 1-0 down. Three minutes in, Andrew Shinnie blasted into the roof of the net from Oliver Lee’s cross.
What followed from Howe’s men was utter dominance. Five corners came after efforts from Marc Pugh and Harry Arter (twice). A pin-point cross from Simon Francis on 22 minutes was met by Lewis Grabban, but the inspired Randolph clawed the ball clear.
At the other end, Clark’s men should have had a penalty when Francis appeared to handle Shinnie’s cross from the left. Referee Michael Naylor said ‘no’.
Cherries’ authority in every department bar the goals for column continued. Randolph tipped away Grabban’s cross with Pugh looming, before Francis’s free kick and Matt Ritchie’s follow-up shot were both blocked by the mountainous Nikola Zigic.
The 6ft8 Serb made it 2-0 just after the half-hour mark. Jesse Lingard stole the ball from a dawdling Andrew Surman and played a neat ball through to Zigic who slotted under Lee Camp. Thirty-four minutes gone, two shots on target, two goals. It was laughable.
Shinnie could have made it 3-0 five minutes before half-time, but Steve Cook blocked as he shaped to shoot. Paul Robinson then denied Ritchie, before Grabban was unlucky not to find the target with a shot from the outside of his right foot after Arter’s wonderful through ball. Randolph was beaten as the ball trickled agonisingly wide.
Some neat inter-play between Ritchie and Pugh saw the former complete the move by firing straight at Randolph, while Eunan O’Kane and Tommy Elphick both saw chances go begging before the interval.
After the restart, Randolph saved well from Pugh, whose right-foot effort from close range rapped the keeper’s gloves with venom. He then pawed away Ritchie’s free kick as the hour mark edged closer.
Another glancing header from Grabban flew over the crossbar and Randolph was equal to substitute Ryan Fraser’s 68th-minute snapshot. The Blues seemed satisfied to defend in numbers as Clark prowled the technical area willing the time away.
Howe introduced both Brett Pitman and Tokelo Rantie, but neither made too much impact, save some trademark bursts of pace from the South African.
And so Clark’s clock ticked down to conclude one of those games where it was difficult to know what to ask in the post-match interviews. Howe looked as much at a loss as the gathered press.
The final statistics showed Cherries had 24 shots, with eight on target. Birmingham failed to test Camp again following Zigic’s goal.
Cherries won the corner count 14-3 and bossed 60 per cent of the possession. They lost 2-0.
Sometimes you just have to laugh.
Star man and match facts
Eddie Howe is not short of options in midfield, but Eunan O’Kane surely has to be the first name on the team sheet for Saturday’s trip to Sheffield Wednesday.
The Irishman has arguably made the biggest step of all Howe’s charges, having come from League Two Torquay.
But he continues to punch above his slight weight in the middle of the park, both as a ball winner and creative influence.
Winger Matt Ritchie, meanwhile, was again impressive on the wing, before moving inside during the second half and later to left-back.
Cherries: (4-5-1) Camp 7; Francis 7.5, Elphick 7.5, Cook 8, Daniels 7.5 (Pitman, 79); Ritchie 8, Arter 7.5, O'Kane 8.5*, Surman 7 (Fraser, h-t), Pugh 7.5 (Rantie, 66); Grabban 8.
Unused subs: Harte, MacDonald, Yennaris, Flahavan (g/k).
Blues: (4-2-3-1) Randolph; Caddis, Burn, Bartley, Robinson; Adeyemi, Lee; Burke (McLean, 61), Lingard (Reilly, 75), Shinnie; Zigic.
Unused subs: Mullins, Brown, Bell, Gray, Doyle (g/k).
Booked: Caddis, Bartley, Burke, Adeyemi, Shinnie.
Referee: Michael Naylor (South Yorks).
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