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Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 00:35 GMT
Man Utd close gap
Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and midfielder David Beckham
Goalscorer Van Nistelrooy has hit a rich vein of form
Birmingham 0-1 Man Utd

Manchester United closed the gap on leaders Arsenal to three points with a vital victory over Birmingham.

Striker Ruud van Nistelrooy fired United to within touching distance of Arsene Wenger's side with a superb goal.

It was enough to settle the game in the visitors' favour and give United their sixth consecutive Premiership win.

But the result leaves Steve Bruce's struggling Birmingham perilously close to the relegation zone, just six points above third-from-bottom West Brom.
Premiership top five
1. Arsenal 56 pts
2. Man Utd 53 pts
3. Newcastle 48 pts
4. Chelsea 45 pts
5. Everton 45 pts

St Andrews had not hosted a top-flight encounter between these two sides for 17 years.

And the foreign surroundings appeared to interrupt United's recent impressive momentum.

Indeed, it was the hosts who enjoyed a purple patch midway through the first half which almost saw them take the lead.

Key moments
31 mins: Veron clears Dugarry's goalbound header
41 mins: Scholes hits upright
56 mins: Van Nistelrooy puts United aheady
67 mins: Keane is booked for first time since return from injury

Juan Sebastian Veron was forced to clear Christophe Dugarry's goal-bound header off the line as Birmingham sensed an opening in the offing.

Either side of Dugarry's effort were two good chances for Clinton Morrison to test Roy Carroll in the United goal, but neither caused sufficient alarm.

Despite United's greater possession, they failed to trouble Birmingham's defence, which was well marshalled by the impressive Matthew Upson.

Fearing an ear-bashing from Sir Alex Ferguson at half time, United emerged from their temporary slumber just before the break.
Robbie Savage and David Beckham tangle for the ball
Beckam faces former United midfielder Savage

Paul Scholes rattled the upright with a thumping shot following good work by David Beckham.

A different United side emerged after the interval and Nico Vaesen had to be alert to the threat of Van Nistelrooy early on in the half.

But there was nothing Vaesen could do about the sheer determination that brought the Dutchman's 26th goal of the season.

With his back to goal, Van Nistelrooy turned superbly to dispatch a low, slightly deflected shot past Vaesen.

Premiership bottom five
16. Birmingham 26 pts
17. Bolton 24 pts
18. West Brom 20 pts
19. West Ham 20 pts
20. Sunderland 19 pts

Scholes could have doubled United's advantage soon after, but his left-foot shot from Ryan Giggs' cross flashed just wide.

Bruce introduced Jovan Kirovksi and Stan Lazaridis in an attempt to haul Birmingham back into the game.

Yet their arrival failed to spark any kind of revival as United threw down the gauntlet to the Gunners.

United take on rivals Manchester City on Sunday, while Arsenal play Newcastle at St James' Park later that day.

Ferguson's men hit their nadir in the last Manchester derby in November.

But they could well be on their way to the summit as the race for the Premiership reaches a critical phase.

Birmingham: Vaesen, Kenna (Devlin 84), Cunningham, Upson, Clapham, Damien Johnson, Savage, Clemence, John (Lazaridis 62), Dugarry, Morrison (Kirovski 78).
Subs Not Used: Bennett, Swierczewski.

Booked: Clemence.

Man Utd: Carroll, Gary Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre, Beckham, Keane, Veron, Giggs, Scholes, van Nistelrooy (Solskjaer 82).
Subs Not Used: Phil Neville, Butt, Ricardo, Forlan.

Booked: Keane.

Attendance: 29,475

Referee: S Dunn (Avon).

BBC Five Live's John Murray
"Van Nistelrooy was the real match winner"
Birmingham boss Steve Bruce
"Just one lapse cost us"

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