For 25 minutes late in this rousing encounter between the sides lying second bottom and second top in the Premiership, Manchester United were poised to cut Chelsea's lead to seven points. Then came Birmingham's second equaliser, from the substitute Walter Pandiani, followed swiftly by Joe Cole's winner in Manchester.
Pandiani's 78th-minute goal, in a game the Uruguayan was not expected to play amid reports of an imminent transfer to Espanyol, meant United ended the game 11 points behind the champions. Sir Alex Ferguson's side also failed for the first time to win a match in which Wayne Rooney scored.
Even an unlikely win would not have lifted Birmingham out of the bottom three. Yet on a night when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made his return as a United substitute after a 19-month absence through injury, Steve Bruce's team were also entitled to feel a sense of renewal.
Against opponents who had beaten them 3-1 in the Carling Cup at the same venue eight days earlier, Birmingham showed, in the unusually magnanimous words of Ferguson, "great spirit".
The United manager, having seen his team score early in each half through Ruud van Nistelrooy and Rooney, was less complimentary about his own players and the referee, Howard Webb. Complaining of his "frustration" over a "bad result", he said: "I can't accept that kind of defending. We really should be doing better."
Ferguson argued, justifiably, that Webb had failed to spot a foul by Nicky Butt on Cristiano Ronaldo which led to Birmingham's first goal. "He listened to the crowd when the boy was clearly brought down. It's unfair and it's happening every time we play away."
United had seized a fourth-minute lead. Kieran Richardson received the freedom of the left flank after Rooney and Paul Scholes combined to release him. His low cross was turned in by Van Nistelrooy at the near post for his 17th goal of the season.
The goal Birmingham's enterprise merited arrived in the 18th minute. After seemingly fouling Ronaldo, Butt fed Jamie Clapham in a wide position and the ball was helped on by Jiri Jarosik before being flicked by Emile Heskey back to the marauding Clapham. The left-back took his shot so early that the ball squirmed through Edwin van der Sar's dive.
Clapham's first goal for Birmingham, after 91 barren games, had one amusing consequence. At the previous meeting, Bruce had angered his club's followers by responding to calls to "give us a wave" from United fans. Now the Birmingham supporters revelled in the chant of "Fergie, Fergie, give us a wave".
United needed only nine minutes in the second half to re-establish their lead with another well-crafted goal. Again the danger emanated from the wing, Alan Smith delivering a ball from the right which Van Nistelrooy left at the last second, wrong-footing the defence. Rooney had read his intentions, though, and powered through the centre to side-foot his 11th goal for his club this season.
United had opportunities to increase their lead before Birmingham surprised them, and possibly themselves, by pegging the visitors back again. Neil Kilkenny's "up and under" free-kick was allowed to reach the far side of the area, whereupon Damien Johnson's low centre was stroked home at the back post by the unchallenged Pandiani, barely three minutes after his arrival.
The former Deportivo La Coruña striker, who thereby doubled his tally for the season, has been linked with a £1m return to Spain.
"I've read all the stories, but we haven't accepted any offer," Bruce said later. "Until I get at least one replacement, Walter's not going anywhere."
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Cunningham, Martin Taylor, Upson, Clapham (Painter, 84); Johnson, Clemence (Kilkenny, 69), Butt, Pennant (Pandiani, 75); Heskey, Jarosik. Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Tebily.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, O'Shea, Richardson (Giggs, 86); Ronaldo (Solskjaer, 84), Fletcher, Smith (Park, 84), Scholes; Van Nistelrooy, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Pique.
Referee: H Webb (S Yorkshire).Reuse content