By Chris Harris at Wembley
A last-gasp defensive mix-up put paid to Arsenal’s hopes of Carling Cup glory at Wembley on Sunday.
With one minute left on the clock, a long free-kick from Ben Foster was flicked on by Nikola Zigic and seemed destined for the arms of Wojciech Szczesny. But the keeper, distracted by Laurent Koscielny’s attempt to clear, fumbled the ball into Obafemi Martins’ path.
The Nigerian couldn't believe his luck and rolled it into an empty net.
It was heartbreaking for an Arsenal side that had looked the stronger as a gruelling Final headed towards extra time. Zigic had headed Birmingham in front in the first half but Robin van Persie equalised with a fine volley.
All that mattered for nothing in the end. Now Arsenal must pick themselves up and stay on track in three other competitions.
This hurts, but it could still be a season to remember.
When Arsène Wenger woke up on Cup Final morning he had two decisions to make. Who replaces Cesc Fabregas, who tweaked his hamstring against Stoke? And who steps in for Theo Walcott after he sprained an ankle in the same game?
Andrey Arshavin was a predictable deputy for the latter but Wenger sprang something of a surprise when he selected Tomas Rosicky instead of asking Samir Nasri to fill that Fabregas-shaped void.
The absence of their creative hub and speedster had certainly weakened Arsenal but they still emerged at a colourful yet rain-sodden Wembley as firm favourites to see off Birmingham, a club that had waited considerably longer for silverware - it’s 48 years since they won this very prize. But Arsenal have slipped up in similar circumstances before: remember Luton in 1988 and Swindon in 1969?
Wembley has changed rather a lot since then but the threat of an upset was the same. Within two minutes of the first whistle, this year’s underdogs reminded Arsenal why complacency was not an option. Lee Bowyer raced through on goal and was unceremoniously taken out by Szczesny. A cast-iron penalty was wiped out by the offside flag - and replays showed the linesman was wrong.
Shaken into life by that early scare, Arsenal advanced.
After seven minutes Van Persie fizzed an audacious effort past the angle after Wilshere had clipped an ambitious return ball into the box. A minute later Nasri cut inside from the right and found Arshavin with a clever angled pass. The Russian span his marker and shot low but Foster blocked with his legs. Then Nasri shanked high and wide after a slaloming run into the Birmingham box had taken him past three defenders.
The tone seemed to be set: Arsenal probing, Birmingham stifling. But the underdogs were rather more ambitious than that.
Keith Fahey tested Szczesny with a curler from 20 yards but their main threat came from Zigic. Birmingham looked to him for knockdowns into the path of their midfield runners and the six-foot-eight striker had already caused Johan Djourou and Koscielny plenty of problems before he opened the scoring in the 28th minute.
It was a simple enough goal: Sebastian Larsson picked out Roger Johnson with a right-wing corner, he nodded goalwards and Zigic rose high to flick a header past Szczesny despite the best attempts of Nasri on the line.
The ghosts of Swindon and Luton were back to haunt Arsenal and, although Van Persie headed just wide seconds after the goal, the Cup almost slipped away in the next ten minutes.
The red-and-white half of Wembley had Szczesny to thank after the goalkeeper rushed out to make a point-blank save from Zigic after he got clear inside the box. Then Djourou made two vital interventions in a matter of seconds to stop crosses reaching their intended target of Zigic.
Arsenal were struggling to contain the Serbian but their own centre forward would steal the spotlight from him six minutes before the break. Wilshere made it possible with a surging run and a thumping drive that crashed off the crossbar and Arshavin collected the rebound and wriggled past his marker to cross for Van Persie to volley into the corner. Arsenal were all-square.
Nasri stung the hands of Foster in first-half stoppage time and Rosicky flashed a first-time shot wide at the end of a quicksilver move three minutes into the second half. The tide seemed to be turning.
But just when you sensed Arsenal were taking a grip, Birmingham almost caught them with a sucker-punch. This time Jean Beasejour robbed Djourou and the ball rolled for Fahey, who saw one shot blocked and a second effort cannon off the post with Szczesny helpless.
Van Persie, injured while scoring his goal and only just back from a hamstring problem, made way for Nicklas Bendtner with a little over 20 minutes left. The Dane is remembered fondly among Birmingham fans for his successful loan spell at St. Andrew’s four years ago. This was his chance to tarnish that reputation.
He so nearly did within six minutes of coming on. Cutting in from the left, Bendtner unleashed a shot that took a deflection and tested Foster’s reflexes to the limit.
It was the second time in quick succession that the keeper had saved his team after keeping out Nasri’s venomous drive moments before. Moments later he hacked clear as Rosicky tried to dink the ball over him and Nasri was thwarted once more as Arsenal piled on the pressure.
If you had to pick a winner at that stage, it would have been the Gunners.
But there would be the nastiest of twists to this tale.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Koscielny Yellow Card
- Arshavin 76
- Persie (C) 68 Goal!
- Chamakh 76
- Bendtner 68
- Carr (C)
- Larsson Yellow Card
- Fahey 81
- Gardner 50
- Ferguson Yellow Card
- Zigic 90 Goal!
- Beausejour 50
- Jerome 90 Yellow Card
- Martins 81 Goal!