It was always going to be a difficult game, with Birmingham unbeaten at home since September, including draws against the likes of Everton, Man United, Chelsea and Man City. They’d had two defeats in a row prior to our game, but both were away from home. But with us having won our last 5 games- including a couple of tough away games- I was feeling confident that we could win, but I was under no illusions that it would be a walk in the park.
Our line-up was as follows:
Sagna – Campbell – Song – Clichy
Denilson – Diaby
Walcott – Cesc – Rosicky
Arsene chose to rest Arshavin and Nasri, probably with an eye on Barcelona in mid-week. Having said that, I wouldn’t really call it a weakened team (apart from the enforced changes at the back), especially as Cesc was playing. Silvestre was missing completely from the squad- no idea why- meaning Song and Cesc were our CBs.
We started on the front-foot, with Rosicky creating a chance early-doors for Diaby, but his shot was deflected away from goal, off a Birmingham player. But Birmingham weren’t lying down and kept winning free-kicks in dangerous areas, and slowly but surely, our intensity dropped. Walcott did have a chance, after a lovely ball over the top by Cesc. Theo managed to get clear of the defender, but he couldn’t get past Joe Hart, who’d come out early to cut the danger.
Not much was happening in the 1st half, but it was up to us to find something, as Birmingham were keeping us at bay and would have settled for a draw. But there was the hefty challenge on Cesc, who was having trouble walking as a result but it was pretty obvious he didn’t want to go off, even though he wasn’t having the best of games.
So it was 0-0 at half-time, with Birmingham the happier team. Obviously. Our problem seemed to be in the final third, as we rarely troubled Joe Hart in the Birmingham goal. We were struggling creatively. It was also a bit of a worry as to whether Fabregas would come out for the second half because of the earlier tackle, but he made it out. I thought Arsene would take him off as a precaution anyways, but apparently, Cesc wanted to continue- fair play to him, especially with Barcelona on Wednesday. He definitely seems committed to the cause.
So no changes by Arsene at the start of the second-half. We had to increase our intensity, as it was a bit too easy for Birmingham to nullify us.
We started the second half pretty much the same we started the first, this time around it was Rosicky with the early effort- a typical Rosicky shot from outside the box- but Hart saved well. There were a number of niggly fouls by Birmingham, to be expected- we just had to ride that storm and not let it get to us. Despite the first half being pretty much rubbish, I was feeling confident that we’d have too much for Birmingham, as we tend to play better in the second half. Diaby had a good effort on goal, but it was straight at Joe Hart.
We definitely looked a bit better, and it was a matter of whether or not we could make the pressure count. But the clock kept ticking down and it was still 0-0, meaning loads of frayed nerves. With Chelsea absolutely hammering Aston Villa at the same time, the scoreline was looking more and more dissatisfactory. And to make matters worse, Birmingham almost took the lead, a loopy ball from a free-kick going across goal unto the post. The rebound fell to a Birmingham player, Scott Dann practically on the line, but it hit him and went over the bar! Definite contender for miss of the season, but a miss I’m sure all of us were grateful for. That ought to have been a wake-up call for us, but it didn’t seem to have that much impact, except on our nerves ofcourse! But haven’t said that, we were the only team that looked likely to score if we could only get our acts together.
With about 25 minutes left, Arsene made his subsitutions- Arshavin and Nasri on for Theo and Rosicky. We looked livelier with those two on and we really needed to up the tempo quickly, as the game was drifting. Soon enough, both players combined after Clichy coming from the right, fed the ball to Arshavin, but Nasri’s shot a few yards in front of goal, was well-saved by Hart.
Diaby did put the ball into the net, but Howard Webb disallowed it as he’d blown the whistle just earlier for a foul. Whether or not it was a foul is debatable, but the whistle had already gone before Diaby ‘scored’. Still though, it was very frustrating really, as we were desperate for a goal and if not for Webb being whistle-happy, we might have got it! Okay, he didn’t know we would score, obviously, but I’d ofcourse moan about him disallowing it, it being him!
Anyways, we were getting into the last 10-15 minutes of the game which of late has been particularly fruitful for us in relation to scoring goals, and I was fully expecting one. And sure enough, it came! Nasri was the goal-scorer and it was a peach! To be honest, even if it had been goal which went in off someone’s backside, it would have felt like it was the best goal ever! He picked up the ball on the right and was unchallenged really. He got to the edge of the box, picked his spot and rifled the ball across Joe Hart low on the ground, into the bottom corner!
There was huge relief all around, but with 10 minutes to go, we had to make sure we remained firm at the back (we’d hardly been troubled all game, anyways) and go home with all 3 points. We even had a number of chances to increase our lead- Fabregas’ fierce free-kick was palmed away by Hart; Arshavin mis-kicked the ball; Nasri in the box opted for a pass instead of a shot, and the chance went begging.
And then the unexpected happened- Birmingham equalised! Actually, maybe it was the expected, given our luck and the chances we only just missed a couple of minutes ago. Conceding goals hurt but this one hurt more than any goal we’ve conceded this season; probably because Birmingham didn’t deserve to be level and the fact that it wasn’t even a proper goal, if that makes any sense! It’s been 24 hours, but I’m still gutted about it all. One of the Birmingham players (I don’t really care who) chipped the ball into the box, it somehow hit Kevin Phillips who hit a regulation volley which Almunia thought he’d palmed it over the bar. But he was off his line meaning he simply palmed it into the net. Heart-sinking-to-toes moment, really. That was the last kick of the game, meaning it ended 1-1.
It looked to all the world that we had the points in the bag and to lose it in such a manner was just horrible. Scoring goals in injury time is our forte and to have that done against us just wasn’t a nice feeling. I guess that’s the way other teams feel when we do it to them, but either way, I hope we never have to go through that for the rest of the season.
As mentioned earlier, it was always going to be a tricky trip to St Andrews especially without our first choice CB pairing, but Chelsea winning 7-1 and Man United winning 4-0 on the same day just made it seem like the worst possible result.The only way I could feel better about it was to imagine it was Birmingham who scored when we did and it was us who equalised when they did. It didn’t help much, but at least it made me realised that a point is still better than nothing. But the fact that it could and should have been all 3, can’t be easily forgotten. We switched off when we really ought not to have.
I should mention though, that Diaby had a really good game and it’s a shame that the result somewhat over-shadows his performance. Song did well as a CB, but it would be great to have him back in the middle when Vermaelen returns next game, as he’s the best person for that role in the team.
Here’s some of Wenger’s thoughts on the game. I heard he swore at the press conference,probably to the journos, but I don’t blame him one bit!
“It is a disappointment because we had the game won and we had the chance to score the second goal. I believe the pitch was very difficult to play on and it was a scrappy game. We got slowly on top and played the second half in their half but they defended well and made the game difficult. In the end we got caught.”
“It is a big blow for our title, of course. We were in a position where we had to win all our games and not to win today is a big blow to our chances.”
And on Cesc’s injury:
“I don’t know medically. We will have to assess that tomorrow[Sunday]. He got tackled at the knee. We tried to take him of at first but after he said he was alright.”
I share Arsene’s sentiments that it was a massive blow to our title challenge, but I’m definitely not of the view that our challenge is over. We need the other two to drop points, but they play each other next week and a draw would suit us down to a tee. We, ofcourse, HAVE to win the rest of our games. Do-able ofcourse, but as this game proves, there are no easy games left.
I really hope we can do it, but we’ve just got to take it one game at a time. We play Barcelona on Wednesday at the Emirates and the boys need to pick themselves up quickly as that’s another massive game. A great result there would set us up for the next few games, so hopefully we show what we’re made of.
Come on Arsenal!