Arsenal's manager Arsène Wenger is normally composed by the time he faces the media after games but he could barely contain his anger yesterday over the tackle by the Birmingham defender Martin Taylor that broke Eduardo da Silva's leg.
Wenger had demanded that Taylor, who was sent off for the challenge after less than three minutes of the game, be banned for life. Later last night, the cerebral Frenchman retracted his comments. "It was a highly emo-tional afternoon and we were all shocked by the injury to Eduardo," said Wenger, who expects the Croatian to miss the European Championship finals. "On reflection, I feel that my comments about Martin Taylor were excessive. I said what I did immediately after the game in the heat of the moment."
His mood was hardly helped by his team wasting the chance to go eight points clear at the top of the table before Manchester United played at Newcastle last night, thanks to frittering away countless chances against 10 men, then conceding a dubious penalty in the final minute. United's comfortable victory reduced the gap to three points.
On reflection he might also take a less lenient view of the behaviour of his captain, William Gallas, who reacted to the penalty decision by racing into the opposing half of the field, staying on the halfway line while James McFadden scored, and having to be restrained by a steward as he suddenly ran over the touchline. It briefly looked like an Eric Cantona moment but the advertising hoarding rather than a spectator bore the brunt of Gallas's kick.
"The first diagnosis is very, very bad," Wenger said immediately after the match of Eduardo's injury, which Sky Sports decided not to show in close-up on grounds of taste. "It was the result of a very bad tackle that's not forgivable. A three-match ban is a joke. This guy should never play football again." In a TV interview he added: "If that is football, we're better to stop it." He also felt that the incident led to the referee Mike Dean being subconsciously guilty of favouring Birmingham afterwards with the free-kick and penalty that brought McFadden their two goals.
Birmingham's manager Alex McLeish was naturally annoyed at having attention taken away from his struggling side's brave effort in forcing a second draw against the leaders in six weeks. He defended Taylor with vigour and denied Wenger's suggestion that "to stop Arsenal you have to kick Arsenal". McLeish said: "Martin is not that type of player and he's distraught about the injury. Eduardo was just too quick for him. I don't think we're physical in any shape or form, we're quite a small team."
He did admit, however, that Taylor caught the unfortunate Arsenal man "coming down on his ankle", and Dean, who was in an excellent position, had no doubt that an immediate red card was merited. The notoriously one-eyed home crowd, having cheered Taylor off in the usual inane fashion, were sympathetic enough to applaud Eduardo away on his stretcher, with several Arsenal players still unable to look at the injury.
Badly affected until Wenger got to them at half-time, they looked anything but champions and even fell behind midway through the half. McFadden, at times operating as a lone striker, won a free-kick correctly awarded against Mathieu Flamini and curled it beautifully into the top corner of the net. There were nine minutes of added time before the interval, during which McFadden should have scored a second, skewing badly wide under pressure from Philippe Senderos when clean through.
As Eduardo had started the game wide on the left, the substitution, bringing on the former Birmingham loanee Nicklas Bendtner, gave the visitors a more attacking formation, but Emmanuel Adebayor, after scoring in seven successive League matches, failed to capitalise.
He was poor and the goals that put Arsenal ahead came from an unexpected source. Theo Walcott had not scored in 30 previous Premier League appearances since his £10 million transfer from Southampton until, five minutes into the second half, Maik Taylor allowed Adebayor to beat him to Cesc Fabregas's corner and Walcott turned the ball in.
Five minutes later, with confidence redoubled, he struck again. Liam Ridgewell failed to cut out another Fabregas pass and Walcott – playing only because Emmanuel Eboué was suspended – cut inside to shoot low past Taylor with his left foot. In between the goals Walcott even set up Fabregas to hit a post.
In added time Gaël Clichy, unaware that Stuart Parnaby was lurking behind him, was caught in possession, recovering with a tackle that the referee deemed illegal. Television replays showed that Clichy had taken a chunk of the ball. As Gallas lost his head, McFadden kept his and drove in a goal invaluable to Birmingham's relegation struggle. For Arsenal it will have been a wretched journey home.