Yesterday evening saw the return of European football under the lights at St. Andrews. After beating Nacional 3-0 Blues were now in the group stages. The big time. First opponents: last year’s runners up and top Portuguese side SC Braga. A tough start, but the belief at Birmingham City is always there, so fans hoped for a cupset – which we are suitably renowned for after last season’s exploits in the Carling Cup. Unfortunately though, a well-organised Braga had other ideas; yet heads should still be raised high after a admirable and positive performance from a team with numerous changes from the starting eleven who beat Millwall at the weekend.
I am a glass half full kind of person, so for me last night – and this whole competition – is just something to enjoy and try to take out as many positives of each game as I can. For a start, Braga were very professional last night and must be commended. Their first goal, scored by Barbosa, was a delightful shot which Boaz Myhill just couldn’t prevent. Controversial circumstances surrounded the second of Braga’s goals when Lima, who looked to be offside, netted to put the Portugese outfit 2-0 up. But their calm and controlled manner on and off the ball saw them ooze professionalism and keep a frustrated Blues from scoring.
The lifeline in the 70th minute lifted St. Andrews and if we take one thing out of the game it can be that we scored in the group stages on the Europa League. After numerous chances and a period of dominance, substitute Chris Burke drilled a perfect ball into the path of Marlon King – impressing greatly on his full debut – who made no mistake of slotting the ball home from a few yards out.
Game on. We could do this. The crowed began to get behind the team even more so than they had done earlier on in the game, especially when Nathan Redmond picked up the ball on the wing. The youngster even had the chance to equalise after he cut in and produced a shot which almost curled into the top right hand corner but Braga keeper Quim tipped it agonizingly over the bar.
Unfortunately all this attacking business meant we were liable to be caught short at the back, and so Braga put any chance of a memorable Blues fight-back out of the window when Barbosa, scorer of the first goal, tapped home a close-range shot after a well-worked counter attack.
The team should not be disheartened: the fans aren’t. They didn’t disgrace nor embarrass themselves. A team consisting of new signings, players who were unfamiliar with each other and a captain who had an uncharacteristically bad performance actually did themselves proud. Of course a win would have been a great way to kick off the group and show a real presence amongst the European elite, but the team selection was a statement of intent put forward by Chris Hughton: this is not our bread and butter. The league is our main priority and the Europea League is a distraction, albeit an extremely nice and welcomed distraction.
I for one enjoyed last night. It was an experience I never thought I’d get supporting Blues so no matter what happens for the next five Group H games I’m going to enjoy it. You never know, they might surprise us. And if they don’t? Well, like I said, I never expected to be watching my team play Maribor let alone Braga and Brugge, and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Full Time: BLUES 1-3 SC Braga
Goal Scorers: Barbosa (6) (88) Lima (59) King (71)
Star Man: Marlon King - worked tirelessly and was in the right place at the right time to score our goal
Next Up: Southampton Away - Championship