BIRMINGHAM CITY 0 - 2 BURTON ALBIONA priceless victory for Albion against relegation rivals Birmingham City made for a great Easter Monday as Lloyd Dyer and Lucas Akins scored to pull the BRewers four points clear of the drop zone now with just three games remaining.
Dyer, who netted a fantastic goal in the reverse fixture back in October, scored a much simpler goal on 36 minutes and when Akins scored for the second game in a row, just seven minutes into the second half there was real belief that this was going to be Albion's day.
Birmingham, with just two wins in 21 league games since Gianfranco Zola took over from Gary Rowett in December only seriously threatened in patches and could not find a way past either Jon McLaughlin or his replacement Stephen Bywater, called upon when the Burton number one injured himself in a clash with David Davis. A superb rearguard effort from the Brewers afforded the former Derby and West Ham keeper plenty of protection and whilst keeping the door shut at one end, in truth, Albion could have won by more as Luke Varney struck the post and Jackson Irvine missed a great chance in the second half to really put the Blues to the sword.
After the disappointment of Friday evening's defeat at home to Ipswich Town Nigel Clough made four changes for the pivotal Easter Monday clash with Birmingham City. Kyle McFadzean made a welcome return to the defence as part of a back three flanked by John Brayford and Ben Turner. Lasse Vigen Christensen was brought back into the midfield three alongside Irvine and Luke Murphy with Tom Flanagan and Dyer operating as wingbacks. A double change up front saw both Cauley Woodrow and Marvin Sordell miss out, Woodrow rested to the bench and Sordell not in the eighteen at all still suffering from the knock that forced him off at half time against the Tractor Boys. Akins, fresh from his first goal since October, and Varney were paired in attack.
Albion had an early scare when a loose clearance from McLaughlin was quickly seized upon by Emilio Nsue. The former Middlesbrough man burst forwards and skipped past a challenge from Turner before the Albion man got back to bring him down near the touchline. Craig Gardner took responsibility for the free kick but Albion were able to clear their lines. More nervy Albion defending almost cost them dear quickly afterwards. A miscued header from McFadzean drew McLaughlin forward to try and punch clear but he only found Lukas Jutkiewicz stationed on the edge of the box and the big striker had his head in his hands as his steered a shot beyond the post with the goal gaping.
After surviving the first ten minutes or so without conceding to a home side desperate for a result the Brewers almost capitalised on the fragile confidence of the Blues. Murphy was able to make purposeful stride through the middle on twelve minutes, a superb pass picking out the run of Dyer in the left channel. The ex-Blues loan winger took aim but was thwarted by a well timed block from Ryan Shotton.
Both sides were showing clear signs of nerves at the back. Dyer was in around the back once again but delayed his cross too long allowing Shotton to get back and make a vital block whilst a deep cross from Cheick Keita had McLaughlin scrambling across his box to grab the ball before David Davis could pounce. Anxious moments followed as the Burton keeper stayed down and required treatment after seemingly falling awkwardly on his shoulder. After initially trying to play on McLaughlin quickly signalled his discomfort and had to be replaced by Bywater. The experienced keeper coming on for just his second league appearance of the season, the other coming in the home defeat to Wigan also as a replacement for the injured McLaughlin.
36 minutes were on the clock when Albion grabbed themselves a precious lead. Once again it came down the Albion left but it was Akins this time given the freedom to burst forwards. Cutting inside he tried a speculative effort that looked as if it should have been a routine save but the ball rebounded off his chest and in the scramble that ensued Varney was denied with DYER there to stroke home from close range for his seventh of the season.
Birmingham began to pile on the pressure as the first half ticked towards the break. It took a superb clearance at the back post from Brayford to keep Burton's clean sheet, a teasing cross from the right aimed for Jutkiewicz as Albion once again showed their desire to put bodies on the line and preserve their clean sheet.
Twice Bywater found himself going full length to his left as Birmingham tried their luck from distance and twice Albion hearts were in mouths as the ball flew just past the upright.
Burton's defence though stood tall and held out to the break and a chance to regroup.
Half time: Birmingham City 0-1 Burton Albion
The restart saw a double change for the home side and also meant a rare game where both first choice keepers failed to finish the game. Kuszcazk failed to reappear meaning another chance for ex-Albion stopper Adam Legzdins. Skipper Craig Gardner was also absent for the second period, Kerim Frei taking up his midfield role.
Burton began positively and a free kick from the left was sent in by Christensen, Varney acrobatically volleying over. Another set piece quickly came Albion's way as Keita handballed just outside the box earning him a yellow card and another chance for Christensen to send in a searching delivery, Birmingham this time able to clear their lines nervily.
Albion's pressure continued to build and within six minutes of the half beginning Albion were in the position of holding a two goal lead. A Christensen corner from the right was helped on by Turner and as Birmingham failed to clear AKINS turned to fire home from close range.
Davis lashed a long range effort high and wide as Birmingham sought a quick response and a potential lifeline before Gianfranco Zola played his last card. Nsue, who had looked one of the better outlets for the hosts on the right hand side was surprisingly brought off, to derision from the home fans, another ex-Burton favourite Jacques Maghoma the man that Zola turned to in his hour of need.
One of the first chances he had Maghoma tried to find the far corner with a curling left footer but this time Bywater was able to watch it curl outside of his post. Similarly when Che Adams, a protege of Clough's at Sheffield United, took aim from 25 yards the Burton stopper was comfortable as it went wide of his right hand post.
Misplaced passes were threatening to loosen Albion's grip on the game but when Christensen battled to win and hold on to possession Albion were soon on the counter attack, Dyer sent scampering away down the left and with yellow shirts struggling to get up in support the scorer of the first went very close to doubling his tally for the game with a thumping cross shot that just missed the far corner.
Irvine went in the book for a stretching challenge on Adams that left the City man in some discomfort and the frsutrations of the Birmingham man spilled over as he went in late on Murphy as he cleared the ball from danger deep in his own half.
Albion almost had the luxury of a three goal lead as the game went into the last twenty minutes. Some absolutely awful defending from Blues allowed Varney to chase after the ball in the centre of the pitch and head towards goal. Under pressure from Maghoma the striker sent his shot past Legzdins then watched as it cannoned back off the inside of the post.
Irvine was guilty of missing a good chance moments later as Burton carved open the Blues defence again. Akins showed good persistence on the right to get inside the box and to the bye line pulling the ball back for the Australian, fifteen yards out, sending a curling effort over the angle of post and bar.
When McFadzean was punished for a foul on Adams 25 yards out Frei tool control of the free kick sending a dipping effort just over Bywater's crossbar. A succession of corners for Blues followed as they flung everything into the Burton box in search of a lifeline but again the yellow wall of Burton's defence refused to budge.
Krystian Bielik sent in a piledriver from outside the box that was blocked by McFadzean and when the rebound came out to Adams the alarm bells rang until he put his shot into the side netting.
There was more nerves in the Burton six yard box when Jonathan Grounds sent in a hopeful ball and it took McFadzean dropping on to the ball to help Bywater come and smother it as Blues frantically tried to recycle the ball.
Varney was sacrificed late on to allow skipper John Mousinho to come and bolster the defensive ranks as Birmingham lade another late push for anything to cling on to. Adams found space inside the box to test Bywater but Albion's stand in keeper stood tall to beat away the shot and another scramble saw the Brewers keep out the rebound.
A final late change saw Dyer taken off to give Damien McCrory a late run in the left back slot and there was just one more late chance for Blues, Jutkiewicz heading a difficult chance straight into the arms of Bywater.
The final whistle was greeted with contrasting emotions. Amidst the despair and frustration of the Birmingham fans was the sheer joy and delight of the Burton players and supporters celebrating a result that could have huge significance for the survival hopes of Clough's men. Four points ahead of the bottom three with just three games remaining is by no means safe but it feels a lot better than after the defeat to Ipswich on Friday night.