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By Richard Clarke
A deflected, injury-time equaliser from Kevin Phillips put a large dent in Arsenal's title chances at Birmingham on Saturday.
Arsène Wenger's side seemed to have ground out a crucial victory when substitute Samir Nasri fired home with nine minutes left. It was due reward for the visitors' tenacity this afternoon in one of their toughest fixtures of the remaining campaign.
However all their good work was undone in the dying seconds when, quite incredibly, Bacary Sagna's attempted clearance hit Birmingham substitute Phillips and ballooned over Manuel Almunia.
It was unfortunate for the visitors who, while not at their best, were clearly the better side on the day.
The last time Arsenal played here a 90th-minute equaliser lethally weakened their title chances. Wenger's men would have gone eight points clear in February 2008 had they held out in the final minutes.
This late equaliser, coupled with Chelsea's thumping 7-1 win over Aston Villa, means Arsenal ended the afternoon three points off the team at the top. With Manchester United entertaining Bolton a few hours later, the Emirates Stadium side were likely to be more than a win away from the leaders by Sunday.
A recent reflection on the title race should warn anyone from writing off Arsenal just yet - especially as Manchester United and Chelsea play each other next Saturday.
However their margin for error is now wafer-thin.
Wenger's team selection was always going to be interesting this afternoon. With Thomas Vermaelen suspended, the key decision was at centre back and, in the end, the manager retained the pairing that had ended last week's win over West Ham.
Alex Song was pulled back alongside Sol Campbell so Denilson became the holding midfielder. Abou Diaby completed the central trio.
Elsewhere Wenger made like-for-like swaps - Bacary Sagna for Emmanuel Eboue, Tomas Rosicky for Nasri and Theo Walcott for Andrey Arshavin. The moves were made to freshen up the side but, as a by-product, they also made Arsenal much more attacking.
The return of Eduardo had dominated the pre-match build-up but, in the end, the Croatian began on the bench this afternoon.
Birmingham came into this game with a proud home record. Chelsea and Manchester United had both been held to draws earlier in the campaign. But, with title race so tight, Arsenal simply had to exceed the exploits of their main title rivals.
And they went for it right from the start.
In the third minute, Cesc Fabregas fed Rosicky on the overlap and his low cross was diverted goalwards by Diaby at the near post. If the ball had not hit Lee Bowyer then the Arsenal just might have snatched an early lead.
The visitors continued to ask all the early questions but gradually Birmingham flexed their considerable muscle.
The home side won a succession of free-kicks and, from one in the 10th minute, Denilson's clearance found Craig Gardner, who drove over the bar.
Walcott had a shout of penalty when Liam Ridgewell pushed him over on one of his many excursions into the area. The England winger was already starting to have an influential game.
In the 18th minute, he muscled in front of Scott Dann and went clear for a split-second. However Joe Hart rushed out to block his shot on the edge of the area.
By now, Arsenal were starting to turn the screw again. They penned Birmingham back into their area for a couple of minutes before, midway through half, Sol Campbell thundered a header over the bar from a Fabregas corner.
However this organised and resilient Birmingham side would not be restrained for long.
On the half-hour Bowyer robbed Denilson in midfield and Jerome's drive was brilliantly turned around the post by Almunia. It would be the only genuine save of the first half.
The ex-Cardiff striker had already given the Arsenal defence as much trouble as they wanted. In the 37th minute, he escaped once more on the left and, despite the attentions of Campbell, forced a regulation stop from Almunia.
As half-time approached the tension rose. Arsenal had seen Clichy and Song booked in a tetchy first half.
Those two would spend the second period on a knife-edge. With points so precious, the visitors' title bid was in exactly the same position.
The tension did not dissipate in the opening stages of the second half. If anything it increased.
It took 10 minutes for either side to create a chance. Rosicky darted through the Birmingham defence and fed Diaby. He swivelled into space on the edge of the area and fired first-time. Unfortunately it was straight at Hart.
It seemed that Arsenal were starting to crank up the pressure but, in fact, the chance heralded Birmingham's clearest opportunity of the game.
Denilson fouled Gardner in the centre circle. Barry Ferguson floated free-kick to the far post where the sliding Roger Johnson clipped a lofted volley across Almunia and against the far post. The ball bounced back into the area and hit the knee of Scott Dann before billowing over the bar.
It was a huge let-off for Arsenal and perhaps it precipitated the changes that followed. Wenger swapped both of his wide men, Rosicky and Walcott, for Arshavin and Nasri.
The tide was soon entirely behind Arsenal. They were pressing for the breakthrough with persistence, pushing Birmingham onto the backfoot.
Arshavin's first touch was to shovel a ball back into the path of Nasri, who shot tamely at Hart. Before that Bendtner had failed to anticipated Johnson missing Sagna's right-wing cross.
Diaby planted the ball in the net from range but referee Howard Webb ruled it out for a foul in the build-up.
Arsenal needed more so, with 10 minutes left, Wenger called for Eduardo to come on.
The Croatian trotted over the bench to get stripped. But before he could get on, Arsenal scored. Nasri collected the ball on the right and drove towards the area before letting fly.
The ball flew into the far corner of the net and the Frenchman raced towards the Arsenal fans who were already in a state of delirium. In the wake of the goal, Wenger told Eduardo to sit down again.
Birmingham tried to respond but could not muster much. In fact Arsenal should have killed it off. First Fabregas' fierce free-kick was batted away by Hart then Nasri burst through and tried to find Arshavin when he should have gone for goal. The Russian miscued from close range.
It seemed Arsenal were about to hold on but there was a sting in the tail.
In the second minute of injury time, Birmingham clipped an angled ball into the area. Sagna's clearance hit Phillips and the scrambling Almunia could not stop the ball finding the net.
It was a horrible goal to concede and a horrible end.
The solitary point means Arsenal have fallen off the pace in the title race.
There is still time for them to recover but, from here on in, Wenger's men must be immaculate.
Arsenal lost two vital points here today but they have not lost hope.
Referee: Howard Webb
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