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Payne's verdict: Birmingham City 2 AFC Bournemouth 4
CHERRIES are top of the league! For March, at least.
Fourteen points adrift of the Championship play-off spots at the start of the month, the gap has been slashed to five in the space of just eight games, with only Burnley holding on to the coattails of the in-form Cherries of late.
Unseemly to think that a matter of weeks ago survival still needed to be ensured, but now, a free pass for the rest of the campaign.
Although Reading, Nottingham Forest, Ipswich and Brighton stand in the way of Cherries’ path to the top six, five points is a mere crack in the pavement compared to the chasm that existed at the back end of February.
In the distance, the hullaballoo of the Premier League is faintly audible. It’s a good time to be the form team in the division below. And with six wins and one draw in their last eight games, Cherries are just that.
Saturday’s 4-2 victory at Birmingham gave the Dean Court side a record seventh away win in the second flight and set them up beautifully for two huge tests to come.
Queens Park Rangers and Reading, who occupy two of the four play-off berths, lie in wait. Should Cherries triumph in those fixtures - and both are at home - suddenly the situation gets interesting.
Howe’s troops will feel confident of positive results, and why wouldn’t they? The weekend victory at St Andrew’s was the latest step forward in a relentless march through March. It was a win that outside of the first dozen minutes, did not look in doubt.
Cherries’ starting XI featured one change from the 4-1 win over Leeds, with midfielder Eunan O’Kane brought back in at the expense of Andrew Surman, who dropped to the bench.
Far from dominating from the first whistle, Cherries were given two early warnings that they would not have matters their own way, even against a side with the worst home record in the Football League.
Paul Caddis’ seemingly goal-bound free kick curved a fraction wide, before Jordon Ibe’s low corner ricocheted dangerously around the six-yard box and bounced off the upright.
In the 13th minute, the visitors seized a moment of fortune to go ahead. Liverpool loanee Ibe, who had stepped off the field of play for a change of footwear, was not allowed back on by referee Mick Russell while play continued - a correct application of the law.
This allowed Ian Harte to lay back to Lewis Grabban and the striker’s left-wing cross found its way to the back stick, where Matt Ritchie - who could potentially have been marked by Ibe - stroked a controlled volley into the opposite corner.
Ibe crashed over in reply before Cherries doubled their lead in sensational style.
Yann Kermorgant feathered a reverse pass into Harry Arter and the midfielder quickly released the motoring Marc Pugh down the left flank. There was a suspicion that Pugh’s cross was handled by Chris Burke, but the ball still arrived at the feet of Grabban, who tapped gleefully home.
Just as against Leeds four days previously, Cherries went 3-0 up in the 28th minute. Kermorgant slipped Grabban into the penalty area and the striker nicked the ball past Darren Randolph before being brought down by the City keeper.
The referee’s assistant signalled for a spot kick and with supreme confidence, Grabban lifted his effort high into the right corner. Effectively, game over.
Cherries stopper Lee Camp then made a stunning one-handed save from centre-back Paul Robinson’s powerful header and after the restart, Harte had the home fans heading for the exits with a sensational fourth.
The Irishman’s 52nd-minute in-swinging corner was headed straight back out to the right flank, allowing Harte to retrieve, dance away from Callum Reilly and despatch a dipping, curving strike into the far left corner.
Five minutes later, Birmingham finally gave their supporters reason to cheer when Ibe nodded a measured header back across the box and Federico Macheda swept first-time past Camp.
The home side were generally improved in the second half and to their credit, pulled back goal number two. Macheda, a lively presence following his introduction in the 34th minute, collected Tommy Elphick’s clearing header and sent a sizzling strike low into the left corner.
Had substitute Lee Novak not been craning excessively to reach Jonathan Spector’s 75th-minute cross, he may have found the net instead of directing over.
However, Cherries avoided a nervy finale and might even have extended their lead, when Simon Francis’ clearance turned into a through-ball that Grabban could only fire against Randolph.
Arter also saw a late drive repelled by the City keeper and in injury-time, centre-half Elliott Ward got his first minutes since February 1 following his return from a knee injury.
Star man - Lewis Grabban
There’s a lot to be said for a player that gets himself in the right place at the right time – and Grabban is that man.
The striker now has four goals in two games and 19 for the season and on Saturday’s evidence, it is not hard to see why.
Having laid on Matt Ritchie’s opener, Grabban was perfectly-placed to tap home Marc Pugh’s cross and his positioning and pace later won the penalty, which he despatched superbly.
Granted, the ex-Rotherham forward should have had a hat-trick, but his work rate was excellent and his relationship with Yann Kermorgant continues to improve.
Cherries: Camp 7, Francis 6, Cook 6.5, Elphick 6.5, Harte 7.5, Ritchie 7.5, O’Kane 7, Arter 7 (Ward, 90), Pugh 7.5 (Fraser, 69), Grabban 8, Kermorgant 7.5 (Surman, 78).
Unused subs: Pitman, Smith, Rantie, Allsop (g/k).
Blues: Randolph, Spector, Robinson, Martin (Lovenkrands, 79), Blackett, Caddis, Reilly, Burke, Shinnie (Macheda, 33), Ibe, Zigic (Novak, 55). Unused subs: Lee, Ferguson, Rusnak, Doyle (g/k).
Booked: Randolph, Caddis.
Referee: Mick Russell (Hertfordshire).
Attendance: 13,875 (including 1,182 away supporters).
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