MURRAY GIVES ZOLA THE BLUES
St Andrew’s shows support for Rowett’s replacement – but Seagulls pounce
NEW Birmingham boss Gianfranco Zola suffered debut heartbreak as Glenn Murray’s last-gasp header consigned the Blues to defeat.
Ex-Chelsea and Italy star Zola arrived at St Andrew’s on Wednesday, just hours after the controversial dismissal of Gary Rowett.
Unhappy with Birmingham’s style of play and hell-bent on reaching the play-offs, the Blues’ Chinese owners have ordered Zola to make swift improvements.
Yet having seen his side snatch the lead through a Lukas Jutkiewicz header, then lose it to an Anthony Knockaert strike, Zola was left bereft as Murray nodded his 14th of the season in the 94th minute.
“It is the players I feel sorry for, not me,” insisted Zola. “To play so well and then lose a game in that way is painful – it is very sad for them.
“We knew we were playing against a top-of-the-table team but it didn’t seem like it. We were dominant for a long time and they didn’t create many chances. I didn’t see them scoring.
“I have seen a lot of things that are very positive. When you have players who are willing to run and sacrifice themselves like that, it is a great basis.”
Somewhat surprisingly given the anger that greeted Rowett’s dismissal, Zola was also treated to Blues fans chanting his name. “That was nice to hear,” he admitted. “I am just sorry I couldn’t give them a victory.”
Zola should have enjoyed a dream start. Mere seconds had elapsed when Jutkiewicz jinked into the box and squared a seemingly unmissable ball to Maikel Kieftenbeld.
Yet miss it the Dutchman did, shanking his effort against the post from embarrassingly close range. If first impressions are everything, the 26-year-old is off to a stinker.
Others caught the eye more favourably. Ryan Shotton’s pace at the back nullified Murray and Sam Baldock. David Davis was a
non-stop flurry of tackles, interceptions and ratty persistence.
A deft up-and-over for Jutkiewicz also showcased David Cotterill’s enduring class; considered mercurial by Rowett, the winger’s technical proficiency will be integral to Zola’s passing style, certainly in the short term.
Given just two days to work with his players, that transformation was understandably more evident in the dugout than on the grass of St Andrew’s.
Indeed, the opener owed more to athleticism than aesthetics. Greg Stewart laid off to Davis, who dinked an accurate if paceless ball to the back post. Jutkiewicz had plenty to do but leapt majestically to power a header beyond David Stockdale and into the far corner.
But there is a reason Brighton are unbeaten in 16 matches.
Inspired by sub Solly March, the visitors gradually turned the screw. Murray went close, Jonathan Grounds cleared a Shane Duffy header off the line.
And as the back four retreated ever deeper, March capitalised, crossing for Anthony Knockaert to sweep home his first goal since the death of his father.
As cross after corner swung in, one eventually landed on the head of Murray who glanced home before sprinting the length of the pitch to celebrate.
“Credit to my players,” said former Blues boss Chris Hughton. “It was game of very few chances but we’ve got a team who know what it takes to get results and a very good striker in Glenn.
“It wasn’t his best game but he’s always got that ability to score a goal out of nothing.”
REACH FOR SKY: Anthony Knockaert celebrates scoring Brighton’s equaliser
TRIBUTES: Birmingham fans with a message for former manager Gary Rowett
YES! Jutkiewicz celebrates scoring Birmingham’s first