Arsenal slip into world of paranoia

Birmingham City 1 Arsenal 1
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The Independent Football

Arsenal are "a European team" competing in "the British game". In two phrases, one highlighting their emphasis on intricate ground-level passing and the other the fast, physical context in which their talents seek expression, Birmingham manager Alex McLeish encapsulated the contradiction at the heart of Arsène Wenger's football philosophy.

We will see on Wednesday, when they face Barcelona in the Champions League, just how "continental" Arsenal are. There was, however, something very English about the late pinball goal that went in off the nose of Birmingham's Kevin Phillips soon after Samir Nasri's fine solo effort for the visitors.

Phillips' 250th club goal ensured Arsenal lost ground in the title race. Their manager's frustration spilled over into familiar accusations that opponents try to negate their superior skills with rough-house tactics, Craig Gardner's first-half challenge on Cesc Fabregas most incensing Wenger.

McLeish, whose side actually played attractively on a rutted pitch, detected a certain paranoia in the Frenchman. "It's a very European team Arsène's got and they've had their share of horrendous injuries," the Birmingham manager said. "You can sometimes maybe get paranoid about that. Maybe they've just had a bit of bad luck."

Wenger clearly viewed the knee injury that may keep Fabregas out of the Barcelona tie through the prism of the horrors that befell Eduardo da Silva here in 2008 and Aaron Ramsey at Stoke last month. His captain was, he insisted, the victim of "one more" bad tackle. McLeish preferred "robust", saying: "Craig is a strong, tough player. I see guys like Lee Cattermole [of Sunderland] making similar tackles, that's the British game."

Gardner's intervention was not penalised by Howard Webb; nor did Fabregas come off. "If it's a dangerous tackle and he's following through with his studs, and taking the man, then I can understand [the criticism]," the Scot added. "Uefa are worried about the impact of a player following through, but if you get the ball cleanly there's nothing wrong."

Wenger's urbanity deserted him in the post-match media conference, when he swore in a petulant response to a request for clarification on his views. It was easy to imagine that Sir Alex Ferguson might deduce that his old adversary was feeling the heat. McLeish said: "When I read Wenger's stuff about wanting the referee to make sure he watched the tackles, I felt he was worried about coming here. All the pressure was on Arsenal." They would, he suggested, be thinking St Andrew's was "a hellish place to go".

Wenger might now be advised to reflect on the unconvincing goalkeeping of Manuel Almunia; the problems Cameron Jerome gave Sol Campbell; and the invisibility of Theo Walcott. He should also question why Nasri opted for a near-impossible pass with only Joe Hart to beat to make it 2-0, underlining the suspicion that Arsenal tend to over-elaborate and lack the ruthlessness required of champions.

Birmingham City (4-4-1-1): Hart; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Gardner, Bowyer, Ferguson, Fahey (Phillips, 83); McFadden (Benitez, 76); Jerome. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Larsson, Michel, Parnaby, Vignal.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Campbell, Song, Clichy; Walcott (Arshavin, 68), Denilson, Diaby, Rosicky (Nasri, 68); Fabregas; Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Eduardo, Vela, Eboué, Traoré.

Referee: H Webb (S Yorkshire).

Booked: Birmingham Ferguson, Carr, Gardner; Arsenal Song, Clichy.

Man of the match: Bowyer.

Attendance: 27,039.

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