Birmingham's glory leaves Arsenal to face defining run
Arsenal 1 Birmingham City 2
It is a measure of the self-belief of Wojciech Szczesny that at the end of the game he consoled his team-mates and, when the time came for Arsenal to go up the steps to collect their losers' medals, he jutted out his chin and was one of the first up to the Royal Box.
The Arsenal goalkeeper had just played a central role in the farcical events one minute from extra time that lost his side the chance of their first trophy in almost six long years. You have to admire his strength of character but then this was only the 16th senior appearance of his career. For many of the Arsenal fans wearing expressions of horror this was just the latest foul-up of many in recent years.
It was a great cup final and the outpouring of joy from the Birmingham City players and their supporters was a reminder that for all the weekly grind of Premier League survival, there is nothing quite like the euphoria of winning a trophy to transform the mood of a club.
Over the course of a season Alex McLeish's players are nothing like as accomplished as Arsène Wenger's but over the course of a rainy February afternoon at Wembley they were their equal and when a mix-up between Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny presented Birmingham with a match-winning chance they took it.
As for Arsenal, the trophy that was supposed to signal the beginning of an era slipped embarrassingly away. This is still a very talented young team with the brilliant Jack Wilshere at its heart. They might still eliminate Barcelona from the Champions League a week tomorrow. The Carling Cup is still only the Carling Cup. But yesterday was a cup final, and no team likes to lose one of those.
So the wait for a trophy goes on and after almost six seasons it is starting to get tiresome. Yet if, in eight days' time, Arsenal are flying home from Spain in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, this game will be dismissed as an irrelevance. Defeat in the competition that, most seasons, Arsenal cannot even be bothered to win is not the end of the world. But if it precipitates a falling away in Arsenal's league and European form – then that would be a disaster.
Robin van Persie, who scored a brilliant equaliser in the first half, is injured. Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas are already out. Leyton Orient await on Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth-round replay and there is the visit of Sunderland on Saturday before the trip to Barcelona next week. The next eight days will not be easy.
There were, however, no complaints from Wenger, who knew he had seen the Birmingham players give the performance of their lives. They should have had a penalty in the first two minutes when Lee Bowyer went through on goal and Szczesny brought him down but Bowyer had already been wrongly flagged for offside.
Some referees would have sent off Szczesny had the offside not been given. Then later in the first half, Koscielny appeared to go studs up on Bowyer and got away with it. McLeish said later that if the roles had been reversed then Bowyer might well have been more harshly treated and he could well be right.
In the end Birmingham got it right at the crucial moments of the game and they deserved to win. Arsenal dominated the latter stages of the second half before they conceded the second goal but they ran up against some sensational individual performances from the likes of Ben Foster, Roger Johnson and Bowyer.
At one point both Johnson – who had not trained all week because of a calf injury – and his central defensive partner Martin Jiranek were both limping heavily but neither of them came off the pitch. For Birmingham it was that kind of day – the club's first major trophy in 48 years. For Arsenal it was not even their most important game this month and although their players wanted to win, that too must have been a factor.
McLeish's selection of Nikola Zigic was key and he caused chaos in Arsenal's defence. After Johnson won the first header from Sebastian Larsson's corner on 28 minutes, Zigic beat Van Persie and Szczesny to the ball to head in from close range. Soon after, Craig Gardner looked like he was brought down on the edge of the area by Johan Djourou, who got away with it.
Arsenal's equaliser was an excellent finish from Van Persie, who injured himself in the process. First, Wilshere struck the bar with his shot and then Andrei Arshavin recycled the ball on the right, creating the space for a cross that Van Persie volleyed with his weaker right foot around Jiranek, coming round on the defender's blind side.
Keith Fahey's shot hit the post before the hour but there were times in the second half when McLeish's players were hanging on as Arsenal increased the pressure. Their possession was telling and Wenger brought on Marouane Chamakh as well as Nicklas Bendtner, on for Van Persie, to finish the job. Foster saved well from a Samir Nasri shot.
McLeish said later that he recognised he needed to change the "dynamic of the game" and he did so by bringing on his new signing Obafemi Martins. McLeish was about to bring on Cameron Jerome for Zigic but left the Serb on for one more attack and the striker played a crucial role in the winning goal.
It was Zigic who headed on Foster's long ball forward. Koscielny seemed about to clear just a few yards in front of Szczesny but, at the last moment, decided against it and withdrew his foot. The Arsenal goalkeeper failed to react in time and the ball bounced off him, finding its way to Martins, whose job of finishing was a lot easier than all those somersaults he performed in celebration.
It was a rousing end to a Carling Cup final which despite Arsenal having said they desperately wanted to win, they could never have wanted as much as Birmingham so evidently did. That was obvious from the way they played and the way they celebrated. It would be foolish to write Arsenal off on the basis of this game alone. It is not this final that defines their season, but how they react over the next eight days.
Man of the match Johnson
Booked: Arsenal Koscielny, Clichy. Birmingham Larsson, Ferguson, Jerome
Referee M Dean (Wirral)
Wojciech Szczesny Lucky not to concede an early penalty, spilt the ball badly for Martins' late winner. 5
Bacary Sagna Lost the ball which cost the corner from which Zigic scored. That aside, played briskly and well. 6
Johan Djourou Often spare, with Koscielny picking up Zigic. Not directly responsible for either goal. 6
Laurent Koscielny Generally alert but beaten for the first goal and collided with Szczesny for the winner. 5
Gaël Clichy A useful attacking option but his delivery was not as precise as usual. Defended solidly. 5
Alex Song Defended well enough but offered little in possession – gave the ball away too often. 5
Jack Wilshere Impressively mature as usual. Very good on the ball and covered a lot of ground. 8
Samir Nasri Less influential than usual, but tested Foster a few times with shots from distance. 6
Tomas Rosicky Tidy in central midfield but, unlike absent Fabregas, lacked incision in the final third. 6
Andrei Arshavin Some very bright moments, including the run and cross for Van Persie's goal. Substituted. 7
Robin van Persie Good movement and touch for an hour. Scored a technically excellent goal with his weaker foot. 8
Best off the bench:
Nicklas Bendtner Offered a physical option for the final 30 minutes. 6
Ben Foster Made a number of crucial second-half saves with the score at 1-1, including one with his face. 8
Stephen Carr Brave and consistent up and down the right flank. Rarely beaten, despite lack of pace. 7
Roger Johnson Defended very well all match. Won the first header on the edge of the box for Zigic's goal. 8
Martin Jiranek Good positioning and tackling. Cannot be blamed for losing Van Persie for the goal. 7
Liam Ridgewell Not as attacking as Carr, he held his position and dealt well with Nasri for the most part. 6
Sebastian Larsson Competitive in the tackle and precise in his ability to find Zigic's head from distance. 7
Barry Ferguson Used his crucial big-match experience, he passed the ball well and kept his head. 7
Craig Gardner Busy and disruptive at the heart of Birmingham's midfield before he was withdrawn. 7
Lee Bowyer Exceptional work-rate, both in breaking forward to help Zigic and also in hassling Arsenal. 8
Keith Fahey Hard-working rather than probing on the left flank, though his delivery was good. 8
Nikola Zigic Caused Arsenal problems with his height, even if his touch was patchy. Scored the first goal. 7
Best off the bench:
Obafemi Martins Offered the simplest of finishes to win the cup, and took it. 7
League Cup Statistics
* Birmingham City's victory over Arsenal yesterday gave them just the second major trophy in their 136-year history, following their previous League Cup victory in 1963, when they overcame Aston Villa over two legs.
* England goalkeeper Ben Foster won the League Cup for a third successive year yesterday, following previous wins with Manchester United in 2009 and 2010. His penalty saves against Spurs in 2009 earned him the Man of the Match award, while he was an unused substitute in last year's win over Aston Villa.
* Arsenal have now lost both of their matches at the new Wembley Stadium, yesterday's defeat following their 2009 2-1 FA Cup semi-final loss to eventual winners Chelsea.
* The Gunners have won just two of their seven League Cup finals.
1968 Leeds 1-0 Arsenal
1969 Swindon 3-1 Arsenal (aet)
1987 Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool
1988 Luton 3-2 Arsenal
1993 Arsenal 2-1 Sheffield Weds
2007 Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
2011 Birmingham 2-1 Arsenal
* Arsène Wenger has lost five of his nine cup finals with Arsenal.
1998 FA Cup Newcastle, won 2-0
2000 Uefa Cup Galatasaray, lost pens
2001 FA Cup Liverpool, lost 2-1
2002 FA Cup Chelsea, won 2-0
2003 FA Cup So'ton, won 1-0
2005 FA Cup Man Utd, won on pens
2006 Champs Lg Barcelona, lost 2-1
2007 League Cup Chelsea, lost 2-1
2011 League Cup Birmingham, lost 2-1
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