Sorry it’s late, I think Bazza had problems with the pitch.
I have to confess that it was with trepidation that I headed on the motorway north for this match. I had visions that if we defended in the way we had done so for the previous three matches that this slick, pacey and skilful Gunners side would slaughter us in the first half. Will was unable to join me on this occasion as he had resolved to be at his little girl’s second birthday which only goes to show that the late Bill Shankly wasn’t wholly correct when he said that “some people think that football is a matter of life and death; I can assure you that it is far more important than that!” My journey was poorer for the lack of Will’s company but I was lucky with the traffic and got up to Birmingham in good time.
The match has become rather overshadowed in the papers by the fact that Arsene Wenger chose the eve of the game to rake up old quarrels and castigate the now departed Martin Taylor for his tackle on Eduardo two seasons ago. This was undoubtedly aided and abetted by the media hacks after a story to spice things up a bit and Mr Wenger is never slow in coming forward when it comes to the treatment that his players allegedly receive from every other team in the Premier League; it is a conspiracy after all. I think what is meant to happen is that the rest of plebiscite are to stand back admire the silky skills of the Arsenal team, and indeed a joy they are to behold, and then passively surrender while his hugely talented team weave circles around us all. Returning to our real place in the time space continuum this is clearly not going to happen because the rest of us wish to compete and at St Andrews there is a demand that no quarter is given and none expected.
I am delighted to say that the awful events that occurred with Eduardo’s terrible injury were not repeated but there was a lesser injury to one of Arsenal’s key players, notably Cesc Fabregas which had some influence on the match but more of that later. Birmingham started with more tempo than in recent games and didn’t gift the opposition one and two goal starts. Blues set up with a 4-4-1-1 formation with Jerome the lone striker with McFadden tucked in just behind him. The midfield quartet of Gardner, Bowyer, Ferguson and Fahey was complemented by the back four that has stood Blues in such good stead for most of the season. The only problem that I still see with playing McFadden forward and more centrally is that our left flank is vulnerable with Ridgewell as a makeshift left back covered by Fahey whose defensive qualities have to improve a lot more at this level if he is to develop into a top left sided midfielder. That said Blues were solid, resolute and frustrated the visitors and disrupted their rhythm. Arsenal looked unsettled in the first half. Abou Diaby had an early opportunity in front of goal but failed to trouble the scorers. From thereon in, Birmingham dominated, winning multiple free-kicks in threatening positions, James McFadden squeezing through the Arsenal defence to unleash a powerful shot and Jerome brought a smart save out of Almunia despite Sol Campbell’s attentions to put the striker off which only just bordered on legality. Arsenal tried to dazzle, but Theo Walcott’s effort and Sol Campbell’s close-range header failed to hit the mark. Song and Rosicky caught the eye without ever really threatening or providing Bendtner on his return to St Andrews with any service of note. Fabregas was also kept reasonably quiet in the first half although when he did get the ball he was still a joy to watch. It was Bowyer and Fergusson who bossed the midfield area in the first half playing some lovely stuff at times that would not have been out of place on any given Saturday at the Emirates.
The whole of the Blues midfield functioned well and more than matched their more illustrious opponents. Denilson, struggled to get Arsenal going and Walcott was largely ineffective and at present still looks a shadow of the player that destroyed Croatia playing for England during the World Cup campaign. As the first period drew to a close Gardner tackled Fabregas robustly but fairly winning the ball cleanly but his momentum carried him into the little Spaniard who was obviously in distress from that point. He was visibly limping for the final few minutes of the half and I was very surprised when he came out for the second half no doubt fortified with a pain killing injection to his knee. Although moving better he was not the force one normally expects in the second half. Blues were still competitive despite the Gunners upping their tempo in the second period and from a smartly taken free kick by Gardner, Roger Johnson stretched to lob the out rushing Almunia. The ball cannoned back agonisingly off the far post to hit Scott Dann a mere two yards out on the knee only for the deflection to carry over the bar. This was a real head in hands moment and a glorious opportunity to take the lead. It was without doubt the best chance of the half. At this point I would like to give credit to Mr Webb and his Assistants whom I felt were excellent all afternoon although you would not have believed it listening to the rather annoying bloke sitting next to me. He found fault with every decision that went against Blues be it a corner, throw in, free kick or offside. In fact, McFadden was correctly flagged over on the far wing having gone a split second too early only for matey boy to protest that he didn’t think he was offside. I remarked that he was whereupon we got the ‘oh no he wasn’t’, ‘oh yes he was’ routine. Not wishing to get into a pantomime scenario for longer than necessary I said that I was reminded of a quote by Flannery O’Connor, the American novelist who said “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it!” I think this obviously caused a bit of a short circuit in my neighbour’s brain as his face contorted into a grimace that looked like a smacked arse and with a shrug of the shoulders and a grunt he shut up.
Two inspired substitutions by Arsene Wenger gave Arsenal extra impetus, the fresh legs of Nasri and Andrey Arshavin turning the game. The St Andrews crowd had given the Frenchman deserved stick all afternoon as he was at his whingeing worst on the sidelines as Blues refused to roll over and play tickle my tum. A brilliant spontaneous round of ‘let’s all do a Wenger, let’s all do a Wenger’ broke out with 25,000 all dancing about waving their arms in mimicry of the Arsenal coach which added mirth to the atmosphere. The Blues crowd was silenced however by a cracking strike by Nasri with nine minutes left. The Arsenal team celebrating the goal, a beautiful cross shot from twenty yards as a match winner. The scorer had the opportunity to add a second, but squandered the chance, instead squaring to Arshavin only for the pass to be cut out. It was a move that he will surely now regret as at the other end a substitute for Birmingham took advantage of Bacary Sagna’s slack defending and Phillips happily claimed the goal that looped up off the striker’s face. The veteran’s touch was almost incidental as the ball passed Manuel Almunia’s fingertips and swooped down over his head into the goal to send the Tilton and the rest of the home support into raptures in the 92nd minute. This felt like a win even though it wasn’t and it was Wenger’s turn to place his head in his hands. He was furious, but not so much because his team had dropped two valuable points in a title chase, but because it was of course everyone else’s fault. I happen to think that Arsene Wenger is genius as a football coach but he has a petulant, unpleasant side to his nature which spoils him even to his many admirers of which I include myself. He lost both his temper and his dignity in the post match press conference and resorted to Anglo Saxon vernacular when quizzed about Fabregas’ injury which is unusual for him. He then complained that the media were always trying to stir up controversy which was a bit rich when he himself does this time and again with his criticism of other teams’ players challenges on his players, raking up old stuff like the Eduardo incident and bearing old grudges. Is it any surprise that the opposition players, management and supporters like our lot will wind him up? The pitch was terrible and good football couldn’t be played on it according to Wenger; Blues seemed to manage it though. The tackle on Fabregas was a bad one with the implication in was just one of a long line; as mentioned earlier the tackle was robust but fair as was the one by Ridgewell on Walcott at the Emirates earlier in the season. It is unfortunate that his players took a knock in the challenges on each occasion but it’s a physical game. What are Blues supposed to do? Stand back and admire the Arsenal players while they run circles round us? I think not; the days of the top teams habitually turning up and taking routine points from St Andrews are over so the big club managers had better get used to it. Alex McLeish has forged a solid decent side in Blues and they have a never say die attitude that yields to no one regardless of reputation. Make no mistake Birmingham deserved their draw and on the balance of the play over the whole game Arsenal did not warrant victory. I still think they are in with a shout for the title despite this setback but they weren’t good enough to take all the spoils on this occasion.
Well done Blues on an excellent performance; more of the same against Liverpool on Sunday please.