Drought continues as Gunners freeze
It was the least of their ambitions but failing to secure it still hurt like hell. Jack Wilshere's tears showed it really did matter, as his team-mates lay prostrate in the usual manner of a last-minute defeat. Now, Arsenal might well be facing another season in which the trophy cabinet stays locked.
Catastrophe had struck them when Wojcech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny's shared error gifted the League Cup to England's Second City, with Birmingham winning 2-1. With Manchester United reopening the gap at the top of the Premier League, this has been an unhappy weekend for Arsenal. Now Barcelona lie in wait, not to mention Leyton Orient. This day was Birmingham's, and deservedly so despite the lucky break that granted Obafemi Martins his winner. The memories of ten years ago, and that image of Trevor Francis consoling a stricken Andy Johnson, have been augmented with the club's second winning of this trophy after a gap of 48 years. Now it is Wilshere who is a poster boy for Wembley woe.
A year ago, Manchester United found that winning this trophy came at the cost of injury to both Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, as Wembley's clagging pitch sucked reserves of energy. They at least could take solace in having something to show for their season. Arsenal now walk a tightrope and their manager admitted that the manner of this loss could have a worrying effect on his team. "I am bitterly disappointed like all the team," said a desolate Arsene Wenger. "We had problems to start with. It took us a while to get into the pace of the game, and in the second half we were on top but the goal gave us no time to respond."
The Gunners' attempts to win four trophies meant this was a lesser light for them, a fact confirmed by a lack of cup final tailoring - their pre-match pitch attire was tracksuits while Birmingham's players were suited and booted. Birmingham's first major final at Wembley since 1956 clearly meant a great deal to both their staff and fans, Alex McLeish's pitchside manner manic in contrast to Wenger's studied cool until all went wrong. In the end, the spoils went to the team who wanted it most.
That six-year trophy drought on which Wenger is clearly bored of answering questions continues. This was an occasion in which damage limitation and protection of leading players was hugely important but it was another target that was missed. In scoring his goal, Robin Van Persie clearly injured himself and was forced to leave the game early with a knee problem. For too long, Arsenal played as if other things were on their mind. Cesc Fabregas was clearly missed, and so too Theo Walcott. Arsene Wenger made mention of them post-match and pointed to the difficulty he faces in performing a balancing act with his squad. Birmingham, on the other hand, could concentrate on this fixture, a point of view which erred in forgetting Blues' fight for Premier League survival.
The Londoners entered the break lucky to be level, though Van Persie's goal was wonderfully taken. It had arrived at a time when Birmingham had been well in the ascendancy, though was inspired by a Wilshere drive against the bar which temporarily lifted his team-mates' tempo.
Blues had begun with a belief they maintained throughout and were denied what surely would have been a penalty when Lee Bowyer was wrongly ruled offside when surging through on goal only to be upended by Szczesny. A sending off may well have resulted too to further echo last season's final when Nemanja Vidic should have been dismissed for an early foul against Aston Villa. It was a moment always likely to be heavily mentioned post-match if Birmingham did not triumph but will now be forgotten though McLeish told of how at half-time he "gathered our team, saying that we must retain our composure". Meanwhile, the young goalkeeper may even wish he had been so punished. He was culpable for both Blues goals and has probably begun more talk about Arsenal lacking a trustworthy goalkeeper.
It was aerial power that was always likely to be Birmingham's most potent weapon and Nikola Zigic's 28th-minute header was a victory for McLeish's training-ground drills, and a first moment to rue for Szczesny, whose late commitment to Roger Johnson's flick left him in limbo as the Serb nodded past him. Sadly for him, his afternoon was to get far worse.
Arsenal's second-period showing had to be better and yet it was not good enough. Wenger perhaps needed to resort to hurling Wembley's finest bone china to lift his charges' desire; they seemed for long periods to be lacking it.
The Gunners could have fallen behind again when Keith Fahey crashed the ball off the base of the post in the 57th minute. At this point, Birmingham were still the team raising their game to match the occasion. Only Wilshere of Arsenal's players matched their determination, with both Alex Song and Tomas Rosicky particularly lacking in drive and Gael Clichy struggling as Zigic towered on his shoulder. It seemed as if McLeish had targeted Arsenal's shortest defender on set-pieces. A gameplan had been struck, and stuck to and was a great success or "executed brilliantly" in the words of McLeish, who stopped short of slapping his own back and moved the credit to his players.
On a day when much went right for the Scot, even he could not have predicted the manner of victory. "You do need luck," admitted McLeish in the time-honoured magnamity of the victor.
As Wenger pointed out, a lack of "communication and determination" caused it to be scored. "The ball was in no-man's land," said Wenger, who described Szczesny and the equally guilty Laurent Kosciely as "destroyed" in the dressing room. "Someone had to take responsibility. Nobody from Birmingham was going for the ball." A costly error then, and one which may have far-reaching effects on the esprit de corps of Arsenal.
Now they are chasing for three trophies that all look far harder to win than this should have been. "The Carling Cup is playing just four or five games," said Wenger. "We will not throw 38 games away because of one game but we don't deny it's a massive disappointment."
MAN OF THE MATCH - Ben Foster - He will likely not be denied the champagne reception he complained wasn't forthcoming when he won this trophy with Manchester United, and can be highly pleased with a display that matched the quality of his previous showing on this stage. Two saves made with his legs, first from Arshavin and then from Bendtner were low on artistic impression but high on importance.
ARSENAL VERDICT: They will feel cursed, unlucky and bruised but when they were expected to blow away Blues with free-flowing verve, they singularly failed to do so. Wilshere was outstanding in that he was often the only player who looked up for it. That late goal was cruel considering they had begun to dominate, but their first-half performance was poor enough to deserve their fate.
BIRMINGHAM CITY VERDICT: Alex McLeish may have won plenty of trophies north of the border but this must register as his greatest triumph and he admitted as much. His players worked manfully all game and indeed were no less creative than their storied opponents. They had luck, of course, but they rode it well, and their fans can look forward to European adventures that McLeish forgot he had qualified for in winning this trophy.
ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA: Wembley's PA system made its usual incursion into the eardrums of the spectators, with a volume and music policy that surely acts against Brent Council's noise pollution policy. Welcome relief was provided by the playing of ELO's "Mr Blue Sky" and it had Blues fans pogoing in the aisles.