By Richard Clarke
Arsenal were denied a crucial victory by a highly-debatable injury-time penalty at Birmingham on Saturday in a game overshadowed by a nasty injury to Eduardo.
After only three minutes, the Croatian striker was caught on his left ankle by Martin Taylor. The Birmingham defender was immediately sent off however Eduardo took another nine minutes to leave the pitch. He required extensive treatment and was stretchered off with an oxygen mask strapped to his face. He had barely moved through the entire time. It was later confirmed he had broken his leg.
Understandably, Arsenal struggled to come to terms with their football for the remainder of the first half and went into the break trailing to James McFadden's free-kick.
However the visitors were revitalised after the restart. Keeper Maik Taylor had already made a couple of fine saves before Walcott touched home Emmanuel Adebayor's header in the 49th minute.
Five minutes later the England international robbed Liam Ridgewell, roared into the area and planted a low shot in the corner of the net.
Arsenal might have got another couple after that as Birmingham faded.
However, in the final seconds of added time, Gael Clichy felled Stuart Parnaby and McFadden scored from the spot. The Arsenal players protested the decision and replays suggested the Frenchman had won the ball cleanly.
The point extended Arsenal's lead to six points but Manchester United would be able to claw back three of those when they visited Newcastle United later in the day.
A debatable and disappointing end to a difficult afternoon.
Wenger made three changes from the side that had drawn 0-0 against Milan on Wednesday. Kolo Toure went off with a calf injury just seven minutes into that game so it was no surprise to see Philippe Senderos start.
Elsewhere, Manuel Almunia came in for Jens Lehmann and Walcott replaced the suspended Emmanuel Eboue on the right.
After that draw and the 4-0 drubbing at Manchester United the previous weekend, there was a little pressure on Arsenal. However football is always a fickle master and victory this afternoon would heap the heat onto Manchester United for their visit to St James' Park later the same day.
It was a blustery lunchtime kick-off in the Second City but Arsenal seemingly arrived with intent and, crucially, some of their injured players returning.
But that trend would be reversed within three minutes when Eduardo received the ball in midfield and attempted to skip past Taylor. The Birmingham centre back caught the Croatian on the ankle and was immediately dismissed by referee Mike Dean.
However the bigger issue was Eduardo. Cesc Fabregas was first on the scene and called for urgent attention from the bench. The Arsenal medical staff raced on, soon to be joined by many others. The striker barely moved throughout the nine minutes in which he received treatment on the pitch. He left with concerned applause from the entire crowd ringing in his ears.
The incident affected the game for the rest of the half. Nicklas Bendtner came on for Eduardo and had a couple of tame efforts. Cesc Fabregas fired just over the bar.
Birmingham re-organised by withdrawing Mikael Forssell and leaving McFadden on his own up front. Parnaby replaced the Finn and Stephen Kelly pushed in the centre of the defence.
In the circumstances, the home side were happy to concede possession. Although they did take advantage of their infrequent opportunities to attack, Arsenal were controlling the game.
So it was a surprise to see them take the lead in the 26th minute. Flamini fouled McFadden on the edge of the area and the former Everton striker curled a lovely free-kick into the top corner. Almunia did get a hand on the ball but could only divert it into the top corner of the net.
The goal seemed to restore Birmingham's extra man while Arsenal were far from fluent. But five minutes from the break, Fabregas sent a raking ball over the head of Liam Ridgewell for Adebayor to race through. However his touch was heavy and the ball went way over the bar. A couple of minutes later, Adebayor nudged a header wide.
It was turning into a strange, strange game. For example the assistant referee's board displayed nine minutes of first-half injury time.
During that period, Bendtner's header was booted off the line by Kelly then McFadden went clear only to be put off by Senderos and shoot tamely wide.
At the break Arsenal were a man up but a goal down. They had struggled to respond mentally to Eduardo's injury. It would be an important team-talk for Wenger and, just perhaps, Arsenal's season.
Whatever was said, it seemed to work. In the opening seconds, Bendtner nodded over from a Fabregas corner then the Spaniard forced a flying save from Maik Taylor and finally Hleb's shot was tipped over.
From the corner, Adebayor beat Taylor in the air and Walcott touched home from close range. It was not just a goal but a lifeline.
Gallas raced into the net to get the ball. As he ran back, Adebayor ripped it from his captain's hands and slammed it back on the spot.
Arsenal had rolled their sleeves up.
In the minutes that followed Fabregas forced another save from Taylor and then touched Walcott's ball on to the post.
Arsenal's second was coming. It arrived in emphatic style on 54 minutes when Walcott robbed Ridgewell on the right, raced into the area and thumped low drive past Taylor and into the net.
Walcott had a glimpse of a second half hat-trick but he blazed his effort wide. Adebayor also went close as Arsenal threatened a game-killing third.
Midway through the half, substitute Mauro Zarate's free-kick forced Almunia to punch clear at the near post. But Birmingham's fire was now extinguished.
In the 73rd minute, Adebayor should have got that third when he went clear but Taylor got an excellent touch to divert his effort around the post. Bendtner rolled an effort just past the post as Arsenal seemed to be
cruising home but, deep into injury time, that all changed when Parnaby nipped in as Clichy dawdled.
The Frenchman seemed to win the ball in his subsequent tackle but referee Dean pointed to the spot.
McFadden slammed the ball home and Birmingham had a point the barely deserved.
It was heartbreaking for Arsenal after they had done all the hard work.
But Eduardo's pain was much greater than his team's.
The thoughts of everyone associated with Arsenal Football Club are with him.
- Gallas Yellow Card
- Sagna Yellow Card
- Walcott 90 Goal! Goal!
- Hleb 90
- Eduardo 9
- Denilson 90
- Silva 90
- Bendtner 9
- Taylor Red Card
- McFadden Goal! Goal!
- Larsson 66
- Forssell 15
- Kapo 59
- Parnaby 15
- Nafti 66
- Zarate 59