Manchester United do not do no-score bores, but yesterday's game, although never dull, remained stubbornly goalless, their first such result away from Old Trafford for exactly 100 Premiership matches. Sir Alex Ferguson appeared to have decided that the solution to having so many expensive strikers was to put them all on at once, and must therefore have been disappointed that chances were only created in the last few minutes of each half.
Birmingham, all vigour and vim but with only one victory in their last 17 games, would have deserved another if Dwight Yorke and Emile Heskey had looked a little more capable of taking any of the opportunities that came their way. By the finish the home side's priorities were illustrated in two late substitutions, bringing on extra midfield players. United, meanwhile, finished with Alan Smith, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney (initially a substitute), Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha all on the pitch. What was lacking - apart from Ryan Giggs - was shape and balance, especially out on the left, where Saha, Rooney and Scholes all took a turn to little effect.
Cristiano Ronaldo was much more dangerous down the right but met a worthy opponent in Julian Gray, picked out of position to match pace with pace and sticking to his task to earn a dogged draw - rather like his team. By keeping two men wide at the start, United also tended to be outnumbered in the centre of midfield, where Robbie Savage was his usual combative self.
There was no doubt, however, about which side were happier with the draw, Birmingham's fourth in succession and their first in five attempts at beating United since returning to the Premiership. With their manager Steve Bruce presumably checking out the red wine with Ferguson, the latter's former Aberdeen striker Eric Black said in a brief press conference: "It was a first-class performance and on a better day we might have got something more out of it. We'd like to have created more but you've got to remember who we were playing against."
The richest club in the country for one thing, as the Tampa Bay businessman Malcolm Glazer well knows. His best hope now is that United slip (even) further behind in the championship race, causing a consequent fall in the price of shares as he continues hoovering them up; another 15.4 million last week taking his holding to 25.3 per cent. Before the game United followers unveiled their "Not For Sal£" banner while the home supporters, never slow to capitalise on others' misfortunes, chanted "U-S-A, U-S-A".
In attempting to freshen his side up by making five changes, Ferguson had brought back Wes Brown, Quinton Fortune and Saha, who was given first turn on the left. But only at the end of the first half did they begin to trouble the home defence, Van Nistelrooy side-footing Fortune's perfect low cross straight at Maik Taylor from three yards out. The goalkeeper also held Ronaldo's 30-yarder, pushed an angled drive from the same player for a corner and stopped Saha's half-volley from distance.
Earlier, Birmingham had made the running and the chances, the best of them for Yorke. The striker shown the Old Trafford door by Ferguson forced Roy Carroll to beat away his shot after Klebersen carelessly surrendered possession. The home team's weakness was Jesper Gronkjaer's crossing, reminiscent of his worst days at Chelsea. Bruce clearly shared the general opinion of his winger's performances and replaced him at the interval with Darren Anderton, who since leaving Tottenham last summer had appeared only in the Carling Cup against Lincoln City.
The spiky Savage was booked early in the second half for catching a furious Roy Keane on the ankle. That meant the Welshman had to tread carefully thereafter, not a natural state for him. But it was his pass that put Heskey in on the hour, bringing a smart save from Carroll with City's only real chance of the half.
Rooney's introduction just before that was in an unfamiliar role on the left and there was yet another change for the last quarter of an hour, with Scholes taking up that role and Rooney - who had been left limping by one of Savage's more legitimate challenges - moving more centrally. In the final few minutes £60m worth of strikers finally conjured up some further opportunities; Saha executed a difficult volley into the ground that bounced up to trouble Taylor, Van Nistelrooy slid Gary Neville's cross wide and Smith hit a fierce shot from distance past a post.
"It was a battle but give Birmingham fantastic credit," said Ferguson. "They put so many tackles in and didn't give us any time at all on the ball. We never got any composure out of it and had no rhythm to our game." That was a fair assessment. The manager's suggestion that "We're still capable of winning the League" sounded less convincing.
- More about:
- Dwight Yorke
- Emile Heskey
- Manchester United
- Premier League
- Ruud Van Nistelrooy
- Sir Alex Ferguson
- Stephen Carter