By Richard Clarke
Arsenal lost many things at Birmingham on Saturday, February 23, 2008 but, according to Arsène Wenger, the title was not one of them.
The visitors arrived at St Andrew’s that day with the chance of extending their advantage at the top of the Premier League table to eight points.
In the opening minutes Eduardo suffered an horrific injury and, by half time, Arsenal were a goal behind. They regrouped at the break and Theo Walcott’s brace was a fair reflection of their second-half dominance.
However, in injury time, Stuart Parnaby tumbled over Gael Clichy’s outstretched leg and James McFadden fired home a costly penalty. The fall-out focussed on the reaction of William Gallas but the team struggled as a whole in the wake of what had happened that day.
They drew their next three games and then lost to Chelsea exactly a month after the Birmingham defeat. By the time they were beaten at Old Trafford a fortnight after that they were nine points off the pace.
Birmingham ended up going down so Saturday’s trip to the Midlands is Arsenal’s first since that horrible afternoon. Understandably the build-up has been dominated by unpleasant memories.
“It was a dark day because Eduardo was injured,” Wenger said. “But we didn’t lose the title that day.
“At the end of the day we played a draw but everything happened after that because it created some unrest.
“However I do not think it was our darkest day. We lost the title later on when we didn’t beat Middlesbrough at home. Then we went to Man United and we were 1-0 up but they got a penalty and we lost. So it was a few games, not just the Birmingham game."
With the title race so tight, Wenger’s pressure-valve approach is correct but for Eduardo at least it is still THE Birmingham game. He does not recall laying motionless for nine minutes and then leaving the field on a stretcher with an oxygen mask strapped to his head. Those of us who witnessed it will never forget it.
Wenger admits that, two years and two surgeries later, the 27-year-old is still working his way back to his full potential. Getting through Saturday will only help.
"Of course, it is definitely [the ideal opportunity] to get over it,” said Wenger. “It is the final hurdle in his mind. To be confronted with what happened to you is always good."
Importantly, the team have faced a similar situation in the last month. However after the harrowing loss of Aaron Ramsey at Stoke, Arsenal won the game with a last-minute penalty rather than losing it.
“That shows we have matured,” said Wenger. “These boys are winners but as well we have won nothing yet and so this is just another opportunity to show that we have matured."
Apart from Ramsey, Wenger’s midfield is replete. The manager’s major decision is at centre half. William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen played every Premier League game of the season until February 10. On Saturday, for the first time in the League this term, Arsenal will have neither. The Frenchman has been troubled with a calf injury since the win over Liverpool and the Belgian is suspended after his red card against West Ham last Saturday. Sol Campbell seems certain to start. His partner will be either Mikael Silvestre or Alex Song.
Despite the visit of Barcelona on Wednesday, Wenger has painted Birmingham as the starkest of priorities right now. The Midlanders were one of the Premier League’s form side around Christmas and dreaming of Europe themselves.
This week’s defeats to Blackburn and Sunderland suggest they have faded somewhat since then but Alex McLeish’s side remain formidable at home. Both Manchester United and Chelsea have failed to win there and if Birmingham avoid defeat against Arsenal they will have completed their longest unbeaten run at St Andrew’s for 36 years.
"They are a good side,” admitted Wenger. “They are well organised, play good football and have a very good physical dynamic.
“They have done extremely well until now. They just had two difficult games but I have seen them in every single game and they made life hard for everybody. So you have to give them credit. They are in a secure position with nearly ten games to go and that is remarkable."
You could describe Arsenal’s recent brinkmanship in the same terms. Since the start of February, Wenger’s men have pulled out last-gasp victories against Stoke and Hull meanwhile the wins over West Ham, Burnley and Liverpool have all suffered from an unnecessary nervousness.
"Ideally you want to win games earlier,” admitted Wenger. “But even if it is in the last minute we have shown that we keep the nerves and we keep going.
“These are good ingredients for a team who wants to fight for a title. But we will need the same qualities again at Birmingham. They will try to make it difficult for us and we will need to fight, maybe until the last second of the game. The most important thing is that we prepare to fight until the last second.
“We are on a good run, we are in a position nobody expected us to be. Not one person at the beginning of the season expected us to be where we are so we are in a fantastic situation so let's take advantage of it, enjoy it and go for it. After that we face what happens.
"When the referee starts the game we have as many chances as Birmingham to win the game.
"So let's make sure that we turn up at our best, then we have a good chance to win the game."
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