Ecstasy and agony as Blues stun Arsenal
BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE: Birmingham City 2 Arsenal 2
Emotions were running high as Birmingham City defied the odds to snatch a point against Premier League leaders Arsenal, despite having to battle on with ten men for all but three minutes of the game.
After defender Martin Taylor was sent off for a tackle which led to Arsenal striker Eduardo being taken to hospital with a broken left leg, James McFadden capped a superb personal performance to step up and fire home the controversial equaliser from the penalty spot, in the fifth minute of added time at the end of a pulsating game.
He had earlier rocked the Gunners with a sublime free-kick to put Blues in front before two goals from Theo Walcott had put Arsenal on course to go eight points clear at the top of the league.
The Londoners' manager, Arsène Wenger, questioned referee Mike Dean's decision to award the 28th-minute free-kick that led to McFadden's first goal - a superb left-footed curling shot that nestled into the top corner of the net - and the award of the spot-kick when Gael Clichy was penalised for a trip on Stuart Parnaby, although video replays showed he did get a touch on the ball.
However, his thoughts were with the Croatian striker who suffered a horrendous injury to his left leg. Having said which, Wenger's initial claim that Taylor's tackle was deliberate and that the Birmingham defender should never be allowed to play football again was scandalous and born totally from over-sentimentality.
Thankfully, he later retracted his claim, but high emotion is a trait that, if left unchecked, could cost the Gunners the title. If the manager cannot control his feelings. how can his players be expected to?
Certainly captain William Gallas let events get to him at the end of the game after the penalty was awarded. He kicked an advertising board and then marched up to the other end of the field as McFadden stepped up to take the kick - hardly the best position from which to defend a rebound if goalkeeper Manuel Almunia had somehow produced a save.
He then appeared to be crying as he slumped on to the St Andrew's turf at the final whistle as if the title had gone, even though, for a few hours at least, his side were six points clear at the top of the table.
The captain should look at a few of his team-mates for examples of how to deal with their emotions. The Arsenal players were visibly shaken by the injury to Eduardo and certainly Cesc Fabregas and Alexandr Hleb were close to tears as it took seven minutes to get their team-mate, who turns 25 today, on to a stretcher.
Taylor's tackle had caught the striker just above the ankle and the impact broke both bones in his lower leg and left his foot dangling sickeningly.
It was a mistimed tackle, but not a malicious one. Anyone who knows Taylor would agree that he is a gentle giant and the 6ft 4in defender was distraught after the game, not so much at his red card brandished by referee Dean, but by the extent of the injury.
The delay seemed to affect the visitors and the game seemed flat as a result until McFadden, who was now ploughing a lone furrow up front for Blues, was tripped on the edge of the box by Mathieu Flamini and dusted himself down to open the scoring with a superb free-kick.
Playing with ten men against any opponents is never easy but it is particularly difficult against a side who normally pass the ball for fun. Blues were left chasing shadows for long periods but their application and attitude were exemplary. They ran themselves into the ground.
Luckily the division's top scorer, Emanuel Adebayor, left his shooting boots at home as he missed a host of chances. Twice, he was put clean through; on both occasions, he failed to hit the target. He was also denied by the foot of the post but did play a huge role in Arsenal's equaliser, four minutes after the break.
From a corner-kick, the giant striker challenged Maik Taylor, who had produced some superb saves just minutes before but missed this one and Walcott volleyed home the loose ball from close range. Blues appealed for a foul on Taylor, who was left nursing a damaged eye.
If there was an element of fortune about Walcott's first goal, his second was sublime as he latched on to a mistake from Liam Ridgewell and skipped to the edge of the box before drilling a low shot past Taylor.
Blues were running on empty at this stage and an equaliser seemed unlikely as Almunia was completely untroubled in the second half until the dramatic conclusion. Further Arsenal goals looked on the cards with Adebayor and former Blues loan striker Niklas Bendtner both going close. However, Alex McLeish's men showed great steel and character to keep going until the end. At the final whistle, they were euphoric in complete contrast to Gallas, who looked as if he felt the title race was over.
Birmingham have drawn their last three games, having previously shared the points with West Ham United and Derby County, but there is a massive difference between the mood after this stalemate and the one following the draw with the stranded Rams three weeks ago.
Blues have twice held the Gunners this season, having drawn 1-1 at Emirates Stadium in January and not many sides can go through a season avoiding defeat against the North Londoners. McLeish's side revel in the role of the underdog and if they could reproduce this kind of performance against their relegation-battling peers, the mood around the blue-and-white half of Birmingham would be even better.
Scorers: McFadden (28) 1-0; Walcott (49) 1-1; Walcott (55) 1-2; McFadden (90) 2-2.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Stephen Kelly; Martin Taylor; Ridgewell; Murphy; Larsson (Nafti 66); Johnson; Muamba; Kapo (Zarate 59); Forssell (Parnaby 15); McFadden. Subs: Doyle; Jerome.
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna; Gallas; Senderos; Clichy; Hleb (Gilberto, 88); Flamini; Fabregas; Walcott (Denilson, 88); Adebayor; Eduardo (Bendtner, 10). Subs: Lehmann; Hoyte.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral).
Bookings: Arsenal - Sanga, Gallas (both dissent). Sending-off: Blues - Martin Taylor (serious foul play). Attendance: 27,195.