Birmingham 2-1 Arsenal: Blues for Nervous Gunners as Pressure Takes Toll

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Birmingham 2-1 Arsenal: Blues for Nervous Gunners as Pressure Takes Toll
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Birmingham City beat Arsenal FC 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 Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny left the on-loan Rubin Kazan striker with an open goal from just three yards out.

Birmingham had taken a deserved early lead through the towering Nikola Zigic after Szczesny misjudged the flight on a ball, allowing him to steer it home with his head. Robin van Persie, Arsenal's captain for the day, equalised with a stunning volley but the day ultimately belonged to Alex McLeish's Blues, who coped well with the pressure and were the better side on the day.

All talk going into this game was how the match would be little more than a formality for the Gunners, despite missing Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott through injury. The Arsenal captain only found out that he was going to miss the game on the Arsenal website and had to hold "clear the air" talks with Arsene Wenger, who explained that the Gunners had more important targets for the rest of the season.

Then Jack Wilshere called upon his team to win the trophy for their 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.

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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 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, while Szczesny should have received his marching orders. The inexperienced goalie brought Lee Bowyer down as the former Leeds player raced into the box, only for the linesman to wrongly adjudge he 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 into 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 forced the game for the rest of the first half and picked up where they left off in the second—but Birmingham withstood the red and white onslaught, with Foster at times repelling the Arsenal attack all by himself.

With that said, a number of Birmingham players pushed Foster for his deserved award. Stephen Carr was simply outstanding at right back, as was Roger Johnson. Particularly so when you realise that the Birmingham centre half hadn't trained for over a week as he was carrying an injury.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Sebastian Larsson and Keith Fahey, 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 Wilshere.

In the end, the game was settled in the cruelest of ways.

Yes, there is a worse way to lose than penalties.

It's also somewhat ironic that as the game wound down, Arsene Wenger brought on his two big men to expose the injured Roger Johnson, whereas Alex McLeish pushed Obafemi Martins on to stretch the Gunners slowing defence.

The Scot's substitution proved 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 and Koscielny pulled out of the clearance. But it was the wrong decision. The ball was his and should have been put into orbit, at the very least because his 'keeper's call was late. Instead, when he pulled out, he deflected the ball with the sole of his foot. Szczesny misread the trajectory and allowed the ball to bounce out to Martins who must have thought all his birthdays had come at once.

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Nobody will ever score an easier cup winning goal.

The look Jack Wilshere gave his two team mates summed up the situation 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's needed most, Arsenal's back four have suffered from a lack of concentration, while the need for an experienced goalkeeper has been well documented. They also have problems dealing with set pieces, height and when push came to shove they couldn't deal with the pressure of expectation.

Put it this way—if Ben Foster and Roger Johnson 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 word 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 Fahey bombing on to support him, while Ferguson and Gardner guarded their defence.

In fact, this is how the Blues have been setting up since early February, so Arsene Wenger's had more than enough time to come up with a solution.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

He simply hasn't been able to find an answer for Arsenal's weak mentality over the last six years—and now 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's Alex McLeish who can claim all the plaudits. In just his third year in charge of Birmingham, he's 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 when he was 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 end of the season he should be named in the EPL Team of the Year.

Not bad for a guy almost everyone thought was finished three years ago.

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