Birmingham City beat Arsenal 2-1 in the Carling Cup Final to claim their first major trophy since 1963. Obafemi Martins scored the winning goal in the very last minute after a mix up of biblical proportions between Wojech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny left the on-loan Rubin Kazan striker with an open goal from just three yards.
Birmingham had taken a deserved early lead through the towering Nikola Zigic after Szczesny misjudged the flight of ball and allowed the Serbian striker to steer the ball home with his head. Robin van Persie, Arsenal’s captain for the day, equalised with a stunning volley but the day was to belong to Alex McLeish and the Blues who coped with the pressure and were the better side on the day.
All the talk going into the match was how this game was little more than a formality for the Gunners despite Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott missing out through injury. The Arsenal captain only found out that he was going to miss the game on the Arsenal website and had to have clear the air talks with Arsene Wenger who explained that the Gunners had more important targets for the rest of the season.
Then Jack Wilshire called upon his team to win the trophy for his injured team mates while some called for Fabregas to lift the trophy when the Gunners won the cup.
Meanwhile, someone, possibly Arsenal fans, went onto Birmingham’s wikipedia page and wrote that the Blues were Runners-Up in the 2011 League Cup Final.
The 7/1 outsiders just didn’t read the script.
Alex McLeish’s team dominated the game for long periods with a number of players putting in man-of-the-match style performances while many of Arsenal’s big players seemed to freeze on the day when faced with an opponent that simply wouldn’t roll over.
Forcing all the early play, the Blues should have had a penalty after just three minutes with Szczesny receiving his marching orders into the bargain. The inexperienced goalie brought Lee Bowyer down as the former-Leeds man raced into the box only for the linesman to wrongly adjudge that Bowyer was in an offside position.
From there Birmingham didn’t look back. Zigic’s goal put them ahead with the entire Arsenal defence all ball watching while Szczesny flapped when he really should have done better.
Robin van Persie equalised against the run of play with a superb volley after he latched onto Arshavin’s dinked cross to the edge of the six yard box. The Dutchman’s slick finish across Foster left the man-of-the-match with no chance.
The Gunners then forced the game for the rest of the half and picked up where the left off in the second as Birmingham withstood a red and white onslaught with Foster almost repelling the Arsenal hoards all by himself.
With that said, a number of Birmingham players pushed Foster for his deserved award. Stephen Carr was simply outstanding in right full, as was Roger Johnsen at the back. Particularly so when you realise that the Birmingham centre half hasn’t trained for over a week as he is carrying an injury.
Sebastian Larson, Keith Fahy, both ex-Arsenal players provided guile and penetration while Barry Ferguson rolled back the years and eclipsed the Gunners best player on the day, Jack Wilshire.
Yes there is a worse way to lose than penalties.
It is also somewhat ironic that as the game wound down, Arsene Wenger brought on his two big men to expose the injured Roger Johnsen whereas Alex McLeish pushed Obafemi Martins on to stretch the Gunners slowing defence.
The Scots substitution was to prove to be the winning one as the Nigerian latched onto what can only be described as Keystone Cops defending by Koscielny and Szczesny.
Zigic’s flick was bouncing harmlessly towards the young Polish ‘keeper before Koscielny rushed in to clear, as any good defender would. The name of the game as far as defending is concerned is to take no chances.
However, Szczesny called for the ball to be left and Koscielny decided to pull out of the clearance. It was the wrong decision as the ball was his and should have been put into orbit at the very least as the call was late. But when he pulled out he deflected the ball with the sole of his foot and Szczesny then misread the trajectory and allowed the ball to bounce out to Martins who must have thought all his birthdays had come at once.
Nobody will ever score an easier cup winning goal.
The look Jack Wilshire gave his two team mates summed the situation up perfectly. Standing with his hands on his head in disbelief he must have wondered if these two clowns were professional footballers or comedians in disguise.
The winning Birmingham goal is a microcosm of all that is wrong with the Gunners defence this season. When it is needed most Arsenal’s back four have suffered from a lack of concentration while the need for an experienced goalkeeper is well documented. They also have a problem dealing with set pieces and height and when push came to shove they could not deal with the pressure of expectation.
Put it this way, if Ben Foster and Roger Johnsen were in Arsenal shirts then the Gunners would have won by a cricket score.
Before the match, Cameron Jerome said: “If Arsenal have a weak point, it’s the back four and the goalkeeper.” Never a truer was said.
Given Arsenal’s problems in dealing with set-pieces this season it was obvious from the outset that Nikola Zigic would start up front with the likes of Bowyer, Larsson, and Fahy bombing on to support him while Ferguson and Gardner guarded their defence.
This is how the Blues have been set up since February 2nd so Arsene Wenger has had more than enough time to come up with a solution.
Although, he hasn’t been able to find an answer to Arsenal’s weak mentality over the last six years and now he faces the prospect of all the Gunners good work this season being for nothing if they don’t win a trophy.
In the end it was Alex McLeish who can claim all the plaudits. In just his third year in charge of Birmingham he has achieved a promotion, the clubs highest league position for 50 years, and now the Carling Cup.
However, his greatest feat might just be convincing Stephen Carr to come out of retirement in January 2009 after being unable to find a club after being released by Newcastle the previous June.
His fairytale return to the game is almost complete. Today he deservedly lifted the Carling Cup and by the seasons end he should be named in the EPL Team of the Year.
Not bad for a guy almost everyone thought was finished three years ago.