Phillips Turns Screw In Title Race
Birmingham City 1 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Nasri (81)
1 – 1 Phillips (90)
Had Aston Villa not capitulated at Stamford Bridge, conceding seven without showing any semblance of pride in their performance, I wonder if the reaction to this draw might be more muted. It was as if every journalists prayer had been answered. As was the case two years ago, a late Birmingham City equaliser has dented Arsenal’s title challenge. Whether ’tis but a flesh wound or a fatal blow remains to be seen. Every point is sacred [Thwack! That’s enough plagiarising Monty Python – Ed].
Samir Nasri’s goal nine minutes before time looked to have been enough to take the required three points but a freak equaliser from Kevin Phillips during time added on left Arsene showing the strain. Commenting on Mancini v Moyes – The Italian Job III – during the week, Wenger proferred the view that such emotions show managers care. A four-letter outburst is atypical of Wenger but identifies the disappointment he felt about the result as much as his opinion on the tackle inflicted. In that instance, I am not convinced that the challenge was that bad, the reaction a sign that journalists are getting on his nerves.
Too many have been quick to blame Almunia for the goal; their prejudices against the Spaniard shine through as a beacon for those unwillingly to accept it was a fluke. Perhaps the Spaniard should have done more in keeping the ball out but in attempting to get sufficient height to help the ball over the bar, he forsook distance. Those chastising him mercilessly show the fickleness of football, forgetting last week’s penalty save or saves earlier in the match when the scores were level. Such is the lot of a goalkeeper.
The outcome could have been a lot worse yet it should have been better. Birmingham struck the woodwork when Johnson’s effort looped over Almunia to the far post, Dann under pressure skied the rebound over the bar from a yard. I’m being kind to Dann; even under pressure he should have scored quite comfortably. Almunia produced a good stop from Jerome as the interval beckoned. One other save in the first half was the sum of his contribution to the afternoon before Phillips equaliser, identifying how much pressure Arsenal exerted.
Almost from the kick-off, Arsenal went at their hosts. Diaby’s effort was deflected wide by Bowyer following an incisive run by Rosicky early on. Just past the quarter hour mark, Walcott brushed aside Ridgewell only to see his effort parried by the onrushing Hart. The remainder of the half contained a lot of toil with little or no end product. Few efforts were on target; even fewer troubled either goalkeeper.
In the second half, Arsenal took charge but initially failed to put any meaningful efforts on target. Rosicky once more troubled the defence, Diaby shot straight at Hart. The introduction of Nasri and Arshavin – surprisingly leaving Fabregas on the pitch – gave more urgency. The Russian teed up his captain but once more the effort produced a comfortable save. Diaby provided a shoulder charge that Tommy Lawton would have been proud of, burying the shot but Howard Webb had already halted play, deeming Diaby’s challenge a foul.
The breakthrough came with Nasri picking the ball up on the right, cutting inside before striking low and hard into the corner of the net. It was a cracking finish, worthy of winning a match. That should have been the match sewn up; Arshavin’s finish was woeful with a clear opportunity after that and Hart made a decent save from Fabregas’ freekick. Opportunities spurned to costly effect.
Defensively, Arsenal coped comfortably with Birmingham. Sagna and Clichy got forward well although the delivery from the right was more consistent than Clichy managed. Campbell marshalled the back four well, Song provided decent cover when pace outdid his defensive partner. In midfield, Denilson went about his work quietly and became more assertive as the game went on. Fabregas, even before injury restricted him, was to some extent a peripheral figure. Perhaps if he had the choice again, Wenger would have withdrawn his captain to allow Nasri into the middle of the park at an earlier stage, or even moved Rosicky to accommodate Eboue on the flank.
There were performances which showed toil but little reward. Walcott, after initial promise, faded and was largely anonymous before being substituted whilst Bendtner simply worked hard to pressurise the home defence. He had few clear opportunities on goal, a sign perhaps that McLeish was aware that the Dane is a striker on form. He was shackled well for a lot of the time, forced out of the area to link midfield and attack, which he did effectively.
Overall, this is an opportunity lost. To take the lead late on should have been the signal to close out for a win. This was a game earmarked as tough – don’t forget Birmingham has not been beaten by any of the top six at St Andews this season. Others have tough games to come and it looks as if a draw or Chelsea win is the preferable outcome when they visit Old Trafford next weekend, since they have the harder run-in.