Birmingham City 1 Arsenal 1
Birmingham City away probably isn`t every Gooner`s favourite away fixture- particularly this morning. For me it represents a slight break in routine in that my eldest sister has lived in Birmingham for some twenty years or so. This has subsequently resulted in a Birmingham City supporters branch in my family, with my brother in law and nephew keen Blues fans. So I travelled to took some very well deserved flexi leave and took a train up to my sister`s in King`s Norton on Friday morning. Thus there was something rather odd about leaving for an away fixture at 1pm and taking a short local train journey.
Arsene had spoken in the week about Birmingham being priority number one and that the game against Barcelona would not enter his thoughts until Sunday. It`s not a message that transmitted to his players in the first half as focus appeared to be lacking, Arsenal went through the motions for large parts of the first half. They did very nearly race into an early lead, Bendtner linked up the play and found Fabregas, who turned a ball wide to Rosicky, the Czech darted into the area and pulled the ball back for Diaby, but his close range shot was blocked by Roger Johnson. The game ambled and drifted from there, a Fabregas ball over the top pitted the pace of Walcott against Scott Dann, Walcott won the race but his finish lacked conviction as he poked the ball tamely against Joe Hart. Arsenal had two very valid penalty claims waved away by the atrocious Howard Webb. Webb booked Clichy and Song for incredibly tame challenges (first offences both), yet Gardner, Fahey and Bowyer were allowed three almost identical fouls without caution. Firstly, Walcott was clearly hauled down off the ball by Dann (the foul which he would pull Diaby up for in the second half was far less severe) and when Roger Johnson pulled Bendtner to the floor in the area contesting a Sagna cross. Webb`s incompetence and failure to equally apply the rules to both teams saw him taunted with chants of "Fergie`s rent boy" from the away section all afternoon.
With the Gunners beginning to drift away from the task at hand, the home side came into the game for the end of the first half, Lee Bowyer muscled Denilson off the ball far too easily, Cameron Jerome picked up the pieces and made a bee line for the penalty area and his low shot was clawed wide by Almunia. Anxiety began to pervade the away end in the 36th minute when Craig Gardner caught Cesc Fabregas below the knee with a tackle and the Arsenal captain limped his way disconsolately through the rest of the half. The Arsenal physio did not assess the injury, merely accepting the player`s prognosis that he could carry on. Will we ever learn? Surely the medical expert should at least look at the damn injury for himself? The beginning of the second half did not see a great deal more purpose; the likes of Bendtner, Rosicky, Denilson seemed to have their minds elsewhere. Rosicky, who played frustratingly conservatively all day, fed a pass into Diaby- clearly the stand out player on the pitch- but Diaby steered a shot straight at Joe Hart when space had opened up for him.
But Birmingham were to give Arsenal something of a wakeup call just before the hour mark when Craig Gardner`s free kick looped to the back post, Lee Bowyer hooked the ball goal wards, it brushed the post before hitting an unsuspecting Scott Dann on the thigh and bouncing over from all of a yard out. Arsenal introduced Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin from the bench to lend some much required fresh impetus into our attack. Birmingham`s success this season has owed much to fielding a very settled line up and the fatigue began to show in the Blues as they dropped ever deeper into their own half. Even Cameron Jerome was playing predominantly in his own half. Arsenal felt they had edged themselves into a second half lead when Sagna fed Diaby on the edge of the area, he brilliantly shielded the ball away from Bowyer, Webb did not give a foul for around two or three seconds until Diaby shaped to shoot, so when he drove the ball into the bottom corner Webb was again met with howls of "Fergie`s rent boy." Had Bowyer shielded the ball away from Diaby in the same circumstance, I do not believe for one single millisecond he would have given Arsenal a free kick, after all, it`s a man`s game it`s what we`re always told.
Arsenal were turning the screw and the inspiration told nine minutes from time. Birmingham cleared a Fabregas corner, but in their fatigue stayed grouped in the penalty area, Nasri picked up the loose ball in midfield with space to run into. He purposefully strode towards the edge of the area before unleashing a low exocet into the bottom corner through a throng of tired bodies from 20 yards. It was exactly the sort of conviction that Walcott and Rosicky had not provided in their time on the pitch. With the Blues` energy sapped, an equaliser never felt likely. In fact, Arsenal had chances to make the game safe. Clichy hooked a long ball over the top of the Brum defence to Arshavin on the corner of the area, Hart had advanced out of his goal and Arshavin shaped up for the lob only to be pulled back by Stephen Carr. A yellow card the correct decision, but you have to feel the only difference between Carr`s foul and Vermaelen`s last week was that Arshavin actually had the ball under control and that he was about two yards back from where Franco tumbled. Quelle consistency? (Literally as I type Blackburn have been awarded a penalty- incorrectly- yet Jensen has been adjudged to have taken Olsson down in a one on one situation and referee Mike Dean hasn`t even booked the goalkeeper).
Again Arsenal were guilty of profligacy when Bendtner found Arshavin in the area and the Russian screwed his first time shot wide when he had time for a touch. Fabregas then played a sumptuous defence splitting pass to Samir Nasri, the Frenchman`s touch took him slightly too close to keeper Joe Hart, so he elected to try and square to Bendtner but Dann was back to clear. The sucker punch arrived in the second minute of stoppage time. Craig Gardner crossed towards Chucho Benitez on the back post, who was a good three yards offside, forcing Sagna to try and deal with the cross, in doing so he hooked the ball against the head of Kevin Phillips, Almunia was ridiculously positioned too far from his line, leaving him to embarrassingly fumble the ball into his own net, a costly error from a keeper whose intervention last week had been match saving. As with February 2008, the last minute equaliser never looked likely and we only really have ourselves to blame. It looked as though it would be an ugly 1-0 so desired at this stage of the season, but there were opportunities to make it 2-0 which were taken half heartedly. It`s hard not to be angry at the players for dropping their focus for the first 70 minutes due to the glamour tie with Barcelona, like a teenage girl who can`t concentrate at school because she has JLS tickets for that evening. Champions don`t worry about things like that and it looks as though we have flung away a chance at the league for a grope at some Catalonian skirt. With big wins for Chelsea and United yesterday, their respective goal differences are out of our reach and we are basically looking to both to drop points in at least two of their games without dropping a single point ourselves. It looks even more unlikely. There again it`s hard to stay angry at the players given how well they have fought to get themselves into the race at all. But the manager has created a culture of a hierarchical approach to games, telling them that some competitions are more worthy of our attentions than others and some games are more worth winning than others. Champions want to win games regardless and we cannot continue to publicly encourage this outlook. There again, having scored so many precious late goals, it was perhaps inevitable we would ourselves feel the sting of an injury time goal. In conclusion, I don`t know where to direct my disappointment.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 31.CAMPBELL, 17.SONG, 22.CLICHY, 15.DENILSON, 2.DIABY, 4.FABREGAS(c), 14.WALCOTT (8.Nasri `68), 7.ROSICKY (23.Arshavin `69), 52.BENDTNER. Unused: 9.Eduardo, 12.Vela, 21.Fabianski, 27.Eboue, 30.Traore.