BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE
Of all the points Birmingham City win this season, and if the evidence of this match is admissible there should be at least 40, the one smuggled from their first visit to Arsenal’s imposing fortress will be more worthy than most.
The only other side to avoid defeat at this venue this season are Manchester United; even Chelsea and Sevilla left empty-handed and, on that basis alone, it is one that will be recalled with huge pride.
Set it in its rightful context, the farce at the less auspicious surroundings of Huddersfield’s Galpharm Stadium seven days earlier that led to elimination from the FA Cup and this 1-1 draw is a truly remarkable achievement.
It probably won’t do too much damage to the Gunners’ championship hopes, in all likelihood their final total will be twice that of their opponents’, but it could go a long way to easing Birmingham’s Championship fears.
Why? This was the second of three fixtures from which City will have budgeted to take nothing. It is also grist to Alex McLeish’s mill that his men need fear no one. And the footballing lesson many anticipated never materialised, indeed it was Birmingham who could claim to have taught their illustrious hosts a thing or two, about committed defending if nothing else.
It was built on solid foundations at the team’s heart. Central defensive pairing Liam Ridgewell and Rafael Schmitz, midfield partnership Fabrice Muamba and Damien Johnson and Cameron Jerome and Gary O’Connor up front, made sure that heart beat strongly.
Johnson’s performance was immense. Cesc Fabregas, one of the Premier League’s true blue-chip players, enjoyed a comfortable first quarter of an hour but, after that, Blues’ captain tracked him down and barely allowed him out of his sight. Whenever the Spaniard probed into the Birmingham penalty area, Johnson made a nuisance of himself. He will never be confused with Zinedine Zidane, but he is purpose-built for rearguard actions such as these.
What made his contribution even more admirable was the fact that it was his first game for a fortnight and just his sixth in nearly eight months. The Northern Ireland international spent most of 2007 battling a sequence of hamstring injuries, made his first league appearance of the current campaign just before Christmas and he fractured his skull against Fulham in his final outing of last year. which meant he was forced to wear a protective mask for this match.
Not that you’d have known as he was using his head to deflect shots away from goal and putting his body in all manner of painful places. When Fabregas burst threateningly into the area in a bid to restore Arsenal’s lead, Johnson flung himself across to smother the goal-bound attempt. Blues owe him a lot.
He could not have done it without Fabrice Muamba, though. The 19-year-old’s return to his former club suggested that had he remained, he might have forced his way into Arsene Wenger’s first team, were he able to iron out one or two clear technical wrinkles.
His energy and telescopic legs were the rocks on which countless attacks foundered. If one were being ultra-critical, had he shown more composure and better mastery of the ball as the game became stretched, he might have hurt his ex-employers even more.
But that’s being greedy. Manager Alex McLeish’s suggestion that his side might have nicked it at the end was a tad fanciful. It should not be ignored that, when Fabregas was off his leash, he caused the visitors considerable anxiety.
Blues might have been 3-0 down by the time they actually went behind, to Emmanuel Adebayor’s penalty midway through the first period.
Eduardo — twice — and William Gallas had both spurned relatively straight-forward headers inside the first 20 minutes. From almost identical positions, they powered their efforts directly at Maik Taylor.
Bizarrely, having not touched the ball for at least the first minute of the game, Blues might also have taken the lead when Jerome’s pace turned Olivier Kapo’s through-ball into a killer pass.
With a quarter-of-an-hour gone, Jerome ran away from Philippe Senderos and Gallas and was only denied his sixth goal of the season by a smart save from Manuel Almunia.
Six minutes later, they were behind and, McLeish felt, unfairly so. Replays confirmed that Stephen Kelly hooked his leg round Eduardo and took the ball off his toe; what they did not show was whether he clipped the Croat first.
Just as he did with Obafemi Martins’ penalty at Newcastle, Taylor got his hand to Adebayor’s spot kick and will feel he might have kept it out.
With the script apparently to everyone’s liking — Arsenal had what they wanted and Birmingham what they expected, the danger abated.
So much so that, by the time City equalised three minutes after the restart, they had not experienced much further discomfort.
When the equaliser arrived, it was hardly a thing of beauty. Sebastian Larsson swung a corner to the edge of the six-yard box where O’Connor showed more determination than any of the defenders and nodded down into the turf. The greasy surface and Fabregas’ toe made sure Almunia was left helpless as the ball spun in. Birmingham had a point and there was no way they were about to give it up.
Scorers: Adebayor (21) 1-0; O’Connor (48) 1-1.
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna (Diaby, 83), Senderos, Gallas, Clichy; Walcott (Bendtner, 65), Fabregas, Flamini, Hleb; Adebayor, Eduardo. Subs: Lehmann, Gilberto, Hoyte.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-1-1): Maik Taylor; Kelly, Schmitz, Ridgewell, Queudrue (Parnaby, 61); Kapo, Johnson, Muamba, Larsson; O’Connor (Forssell, 75); Jerome (McSheffrey, 75). Subs: Martin Taylor, Doyle.
Referee: Phil Dowd (Stoke on Trent).
Bookings: Arsenal — Hleb (foul); Birmingham — Kapo (foul), Ridgewell (unsporting behaviour).
Blues man of match: Damien Johnson — playing in a protective mask for a fractured skull the Ulsterman’s heroic commitment was an example to his team.