By Richard Clarke
Arsenal conceded vital ground in the title race by drawing 1-1 with Birmingham City at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Arsène Wenger's side were the better team in the first half and deserved the lead given to them by Emmanuel Adebayor's spot-kick. However the penalty decision itself was a little harsh on the visitors.
Birmingham's reply came three minutes after the restart when Garry O'Connor headed in a corner by former Arsenal youngster Seb Larsson. Although it was doubtful the ball would have beaten Manuel Almunia but for a deflection off Cesc Fabregas' foot.
Arsenal stormed forward in search of a winner. But the Birmingham defence were organised and focussed, keeping the home side mostly at range.
This was only the second brace of points dropped at Emirates Stadium in the Premier League this season. The other draw had come against Manchester United.
That had come courtesy of an equaliser deep into injury time and felt like a victory. This one felt like a significant defeat.
And of course it gave Sir Alex Ferguson's side the opportunity to knock Arsenal off top spot with victory over Newcastle in the late game on Saturday.
Naturally Wenger made wholesale changes from the Carling Cup tie on Wednesday so a more realistic benchmark was the last Premier League game against West Ham. From that game, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue had gone to the African Nations Cup while Justin Hoyte dropped to bench. Philippe Senderos, Alex Hleb and Bacary Sagna were their replacements. Tomas Rosicky had fallen victim to flu overnight so Theo Walcott came in.
Since that 2-0 victory over the Hammers, Arsenal had begun their FA Cup campaign and continued their Carling Cup assault. With four competitions on the go, perhaps there was a danger of complacency against Birmingham side languishing two places above the drop zone.
Arsenal's start suggested that would not be a problem.
Within three minutes of the start, Eduardo and Adebayor had already gone close with headers. Shortly afterwards Gallas nearly scrambled home the ball at the end of a goalmouth melee.
Arsenal continued to pressure with Birmingham barely venturing outside their own half for the first 15 minutes.
Walcott skipped into space and floated an inquisitive cross to Eduardo who could only flick the ball on. A minute later Adebayor bore down on goal but a combination of Rafael Schmitz's challenge and his own stumbling feet saw Birmingham survive.
It was all Arsenal at this stage so it would have been a travesty if Birmingham had scored with their first chance. But they so nearly did. Olivier Kapo's wonderfully weighted ball forward allowed Cameron Jerome to dart between William Gallas and Senderos. The ex-Cardiff striker won the foot race and his low shot looked destined for the far corner. Almunia dived full length to make a crucial save. From the corner, Fabrice Muamba might have headed home.
The game was starting to open up. In the 17th minute Adebayor backheeled a pass to Hleb on the left who whipped in a wonderful curling cross onto the head of the onrushing Eduardo just six yards out. Had his effort gone a yard either side of Maik Taylor it would have been the opening goal. Unfortunately it was straight at the former Southampton stopper who caught the ball at the second attempt.
Arsenal probably deserved to be ahead but when they did take the lead in the 22nd minute it did involve an element of good fortune. Adebayor's ball found Eduardo on the corner of the six-yard box and Stephen Kelly rushed in to challenge. Replays confirmed that the former Tottenham full back certainly got a touch on the ball but referee Phil Dowd deemed he had illegally tackled the Arsenal striker. Adebayor slotted home his 13th goal of the season from the penalty spot.
If Birmingham felt sorry for themselves they did not play like it. The visitors did not test Almunia in the minutes that followed but they did take the initiative from Wenger's men.
Arsenal only threatened briefly when Eduardo went close and Fabregas had a shot blocked. The home side had the advantage at the break but you sensed they would need another to secure the points.
That was proved just three minutes into the second half. Larsson floated over a corner from the left and O'Connor's header wrong-footed Almunia and bobbled into the net. Replays proved that the ball had got a crucial deflection off Fabregas.
Arsenal had been content to play the game in third gear until now. They clearly had to put their foot on the gas.
Adebayor responded immediately when he met a Fabregas pass with a low, goal-bound shot from the edge of the area. Liam Ridgewell pulled off an excellent block. Then in the 52nd minute Senderos sent in a towering header from a Fabregas free-kick but Taylor held the ball on the line.
Arsenal were now stoking up the pressure. They won a succession of quick corners and, just before the hour, a sweeping move ended with Fabregas slicing a shot wide.
As their storm began to blow itself out, Wenger made an astute move. Nicolas Bendtner came on for Walcott. The Dane joined Adebayor up front and Eduardo moved out to the left.
The Croatia nearly profited from the move, racing onto Fabregas pass and advancing into the area before trying to set up Adebayor. The ball eventually fell to Sagna on the right but his piledriver flew wide.
Arsenal were now starting to lay siege to the visiting goal. Bendtner hacked an effort over and slid another wide while Hleb blazed over wastefully.
Flamini's low, long-range drive forced a decent save from Taylor with six minutes left. By now Arsenal were gambling going forward. Wenger even withdrew a defender, Sagna, to bring on midfielder Abou Diaby.
It was desperate viewing but at the same time credit must be given the Birmingham backline who were stretched - but never beyond breaking-point.
Arsenal had two significant chances late in the game. First Hleb reached the byline and cut the ball back into a crowded area. However no-one was on hand to turn it home.
Then deep into injury time Fabregas blasted an effort inches wide of Taylor's left-hand post.
It was the last act of a disappointing afternoon.
- Sagna 83
- Walcott 65
- Hleb Yellow Card
- Adebayor Goal!
- Diaby 83
- Bendtner 65
- Queudrue 61
- Ridgewell Yellow Card
- Kapo Yellow Card
- O'Connor 76 Goal!
- Jerome 76
- Parnaby 61
- Forssell 76
- McSheffrey 76