A QUARTET of games always likely to reveal a lot about Leeds United’s promotion credentials began in disappointing fashion last night as the chance to move level on points with second-placed West Ham United was spurned.
Nikola Zigic’s first goal of the season was enough to condemn Leeds to a first defeat in eight outings and move Birmingham City up to eighth.
That the Blues, thanks to their Europa League exertions, still have two games in hand on United and the rest of the top six means Chris Hughton’s men are now firmly ensconced in the promotion-chasing pack.
Leeds are also expected to last the pace in that race, though it is likely their prospects will be given a thorough examination in the coming week or so when back-to-back home games against Cardiff City and Blackpool are followed by a trip to Leicester City.
To prosper, United will have to show more than they did last night – and particularly in terms of their second-half efforts when an average Blues side found it far too easy to negate the visitors and hold on to a lead provided by Zigic’s 36th-minute strike.
Leeds were very good at keeping possession during the second half but spent far too much time passing the ball square rather than forward.
It meant Andy Keogh, Ross McCormack and later substitute Luciano Becchio were largely starved of service.
Such was the lack of attacking potency after the break, in fact, that former Hull City goalkeeper Boaz Myhill did not have a save to make until four minutes from time when he kept out a stinging drive from Ross McCormack.
Leeds followed that near miss by Mika Vayrynen heading wide when he should have done better after being picked out by Lloyd Sam.
The two late chances were welcome but did beg the question as to why it had taken United so long to up their tempo – a failing that, ultimately, meant the Yorkshire club’s rotten record at St Andrews continued.
Leeds have now claimed just two points from their last eight league visits, a run that stretches back almost three decades.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect for the 3,102 travelling fans last night was that for much of the first half their side had looked the more likely to prevail.
Birmingham may have had the aerial threat of Zigic and Marlon King’s intelligent running up front. But it was Leeds who played the better football before the break and created by far the better chances.
The first of those opportunities came on 11 minutes courtesy of a sweeping move involving Darren O’Dea, Andy Keogh, Danny Pugh and McCormack that saw the ball find Robert Snodgrass.
Such an impressive passage of play deserved a finish to match but Snodgrass could only stroke his shot wide of a post.
Midway through the half, Leeds went even closer to breaking the deadlock when only a stunning one-handed save by Myhill prevented Adam Clayton’s thunderous volley flying into the net.
The agility of the former Hull City goalkeeper brought a deserved ovation from the home fans, who were on their feet again just 60 seconds later in appreciation of a last-ditch tackle by Steven Caldwell that was enough to divert Ross McCormack’s shot behind.
At that stage, United looked a good bet to go on and claim a first league win at Birmingham since 1982.
Unfortunately for the travelling support, however, it was the Blues who managed to get their noses in front with a little helping hand from the visitors.
Sloppy play up field between Keogh and Snodgrass saw possession gifted to the hosts, who quickly moved the ball to the right.
With Leeds struggling to get back in numbers, Stephen Carr sensed an opportunity and drove a low cross that Paul Rachubka could only palm into the path of Zigic.
The Serbian may be more renowned for his aerial prowess but this time he proved equally deadly on the floor with a first-time shot that flew past the two defenders and into the net.
Rachubka, so badly at fault eight days earlier when literally handing Coventry City a late equaliser, made amends for not cutting out the danger in first half stoppage time when bravely turning Zigic’s shot around a post.
The damage had, however, been done and there was to be no way back for Leeds despite the late rally that saw McCormack denied and Vayrynen spurn a clear-cut opening.
In fact, the margin of defeat could have been larger with only a stunning save from Rachubka keeping out Chris Wood moments before Chris Foy blew the final whistle to signal United’s first league defeat since August.
Birmingham City: Myhill; Carr, Caldwell, Ridgewell, Spector; Davies, Burke, Beausejour, Fahey; King (Wood 70), Zigic. Unused substitutes: Doyle, Muprhy, N’Daw, Rooney.
Leeds United: Rachubka; Connolly, Lees, O’Dea, White; Snodgrass, Howson, Clayton (Vayrynen 77), Pugh (Sam 73); Keogh (Becchio 63), McCormack. Unused substitutes: Cairns, Kisnorbo.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).