February 5, 2017 by Shane Ireland
By Shane Ireland
Birmingham City finally tasted victory under Gianfranco Zola with a 1-0 win against Fulham at St Andrew’s.
It was Blues’ first three points in 11 matches since the Italian took charge in December.
Lukas Jutkiewicz poked home with 15 minutes remaining to send the home crowd into raptures and to hand his side a vital win.
Zola was delighted to get off the mark as Blues boss and said his side deserved the victory.
“It is the moment that we’ve been waiting for, for a while, so we’re all delighted,” he said.
“The players were very good because it was a difficult game – tough opposition, the confidence (level) is not 100 per cent and we were missing players at the back. So there were a lot of things that made the game tougher.
“But we faced that up and we came up with a good victory and I think we deserved it.”
The Blues boss was without Michael Morrison and Ryan Shotton who were injured.
Consequently, the back four had a makeshift look to it, with Jonathan Grounds and Paul Robinson selected as a centre-back pairing for the first time.
The duo, though, stepped in admirably to restrict Fulham to only two shots on target.
On the right, Emilio Nsue looked assured and 20-year-old Cheick Keita, on his Blues debut, stole the show with a superb attacking performance on the left flank.
Birmingham’s midfield diamond made up of Craig Gardner, Maikel Kieftenbeld, Stephen Gleeson and Davis Davis were afforded more freedom when Fulham’s Ryan Fredericks was sent off on 68 minutes.
Jerome Sinclair made his bow partnering the match-winner Lukas Jutkiewicz up front.
Jutkiewicz, who proved a handful for the visiting defenders all afternoon, should have had Blues ahead inside 20 minutes.
Gardner collected Keita’s throw and sent over a terrific cross, but the striker could only crash a header against the crossbar from four yards.
Jutkiewicz then forced a smart save out of Fulham’s David Button with a low shot from 20 yards, before Robinson put his head on the line to block Tom Cairney’s stinging effort. The veteran defender was poleaxed but, in his own vintage style, got back on his feet and continued to throw himself in front of everything for the remainder of the game.
Into the second-half, Chris Martin headed Fulham’s best chance just wide in a match of very few opportunities for the away side.
At the other end, Gardner sent in a curling free-kick that had the visitors holding their breath, but the on-rushing Grounds couldn’t quite get enough on the ball to divert it goalbound from six yards.
Birmingham continued to push for that elusive first win under Zola, and their cause was aided by Fulham midfielder Fredericks, who was shown a straight red card for a nasty lunge on Gardner after 68 minutes.
Just seven minutes later, Blues made their advantage show as they took the lead.
David Davis sent Keita charging into the box, and the debutant delivered a low cross that was poked home by Jutkiewicz for his 11th goal of the season to send St Andrew’s crazy.
The relief was palpable, the celebrations wild, and the goal deserved.
Inspired by his opener and a rousing crowd, Jutkiewicz almost doubled his tally for the afternoon in spectacular fashion with four minutes left.
From Gardner’s blocked free-kick, the forward hit a perfectly-executed overhead kick on target from the edge of the box, but Button was equal to it and palmed the effort over the bar.
But it proved academic in the end as Blues comfortably held on for their first win in almost two months.
The fans stayed behind to show their appreciation for the players as they left the pitch – and the players and coaches returned the favour towards the supporters who have stuck with the team during a difficult period.
Zola said he would celebrate with “a lot of wine…and not only one bottle” after the match – and he surely wasn’t the only one.
Blues remain 12th, nine points behind the play-offs, ahead of the visit to 6th-placed Sheffield Wednesday on Friday evening.
Birmingham: Kuszczak, Nsue, Robinson, Grounds, Keita, Kieftenbeld, Gleeson, Davis (Tesche 83), Gardner, Jutkiewicz, Sinclair (Adams 67)
Subs not used: Legzdins, Stewart, Frei, Dacres-Cogley, Bielik
Fulham: Button, Fredericks, Kalas, Ream, Sessegnon (Malone 60), McDonald, Johansen, Aluko (Cyriac 78), Cairney, Piazon (Ayite 60), Martin
Subs not used: Bettinelli, Odoi, Parker, Madl
Referee: Andrew Madley.