The most even Premier League in memory continued on its merry way last night as Manchester United, having retained second place because of Arsenal's failure to win at home, became the latest contenders to find Birmingham City obdurate opposition. Despite having most of the ball for long spells, the visitors fell behind shortly before half-time and required an own goal to equalise as Birmingham appealed unsuccessfully for offside. So if a sixth League defeat was avoided, the opportunity to overtake Chelsea at the top of the table for the first time since October was spurned.
Having failed in the first half to take advantage of abundant possession, the champions found themselves vulnerable to counter-attack later on by the home side's lively pair Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez. Losing Darren Fletcher to a second yellow card with six minutes to play caused further anxiety, although it was Birmingham's supporters and coaching staff who groaned and complained when six minutes of added "Fergie time" were indicated.
Their team had shown all their renowned dogged qualities, exemplified by the combative Lee Bowyer, in reaching a record 12th match unbeaten at this level and delighting Alex McLeish, who once served under Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen. "The second half was much better after we gave Manchester United far too much respect," he said. "These guys have a collective spirit that far outweighs individual ability, the best I've ever worked with. Another fantastic performance by our lads."
Ferguson gave due credit to his old centre-half, but none to the referee Mark Clattenburg after Fletcher's dismissal for a trip on Jerome that followed a bad lunge through the back of Bowyer. "I've not seen a softer sending off for a long time, it was absolutely ridiculous," he said. "I watched Mark Clattenburg at the Arsenal-Spurs game and you had to have somebody hit by an axe to get booked. There were some weird and wonderful decisions out there."
Birmingham's consistency has enabled McLeish to field an unchanged team for nine successive League games. Each unit is consequently well drilled, only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals, and it was individual mistakes rather than organisational failure that allowed United their scoring opportunities in dominating the first half.
There was never any chance of Ferguson keeping the same team after such a feeble failure against Leeds in the FA Cup; he has not done that for 100 matches in a row. There were seven alterations this time, those culled including Gary Neville, Anderson and Dimitar Berbatov, while Michael Owen was still left to shiver in the dug-out. Nemanja Vidic, injured in the warm-up last weekend, will not return for at least 10 days and Rio Ferdinand is a further fortnight away. For almost 40 minutes, their replacements, Wes Brown and Jonny Evans, macho centre-backs in short sleeves, coped comfortably, only to be caught out entirely against the run of play.
From Birmingham's first corner – it had taken them 38 minutes – Bowyer won a header and although Evans blocked the ball, it fell perfectly for Jerome to bang in.
United had been unable to profit from defensive errors by Barry Ferguson, Stephen Carr and Liam Ridgewell, the product of which was a single save by Joe Hart as Wayne Rooney's deft touch brought down the pass from Antonio Valencia. Tomasz Kuszczak, even more untroubled until the goal, had work to do in the second half in making saves from Benitez twice – once after a superb turn between two defenders – and Roger Johnson.
Jerome had a glorious chance in a three-against-two break, but his chip was neither fish nor fowl, eluding his two team-mates as well as the goal. Within three minutes United were deservedly level. Deservedly but controversially; Rooney and Paul Scholes had shots blocked in characteristically brave fashion by defenders, Patrice Evra drove over a low cross-shot and with the referee's assistant wrongly indicating that at least one attacker and possibly two were offside, the unfortunate Scott Dann deflected the ball into his own net. The referee briefly raised home hopes by running across to consult the assistant but then shattered them by indicating a goal.
Belatedly it had become a vibrant, open game on a difficult pitch. There was another twist as Fletcher was dismissed after hanging out his leg to stop Jerome and each goalkeeper then made one last save to keep the balance of accounts level.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Bowyer
Match rating: 6/10