A freakish stoppage-time goal by Birmingham substitute Kevin Phillips – the 250th of the 36-year-old striker's career – denied Arsenal the seventh consecutive Premier League victory which a goal by another late entrant into a scrappy contest, Samir Nasri, appeared certain to secure.
Two additional minutes had been played when Birmingham's Craig Gardner chipped a pass into a congested Arsenal area. Bacary Sagna tried to clear the ball but succeeded only into playing it against Phillips' face. Even then, Manuel Almunia put both hands on the ball as it flew goalwards, but merely diverted it over his head and into the net.
Arsenal had taken the lead with nine minutes of normal time remaining, Nasri cutting in from the right and beating Joe Hart with a low, angled shot from 20 yards. It looked as if Birmingham's unbeaten home record, stretching back to September, was about to go, and Nasri and Cesc Fabregas had chances to put the outcome beyond doubt before Phillips struck. An emotional Arsène Wenger admitted the result was "a big blow to our title challenge. It's disappointing because we had the game won and the chances to score a second goal."
Wenger, returning for the first time to the scene of Martin Taylor's ankle-breaking tackle on Eduardo da Silva 25 months ago, complained that Fabregas had suffered a knee injury in an unpenalised challenge by Gardner. "It was a bad tackle," he said, adding pointedly: "One more." Pressed to elaborate, the Arsenal manager snapped: "He got tackled at the knee." Fabregas stayed on and a scan today will decide whether he is fit to face Barcelona on Wednesday.
Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, described Gardner's challenge as "robust" and pointed out that Arsenal had perpetrated "a few bad tackles" themselves. "We deserved our moment of glory," the Scot said. "It was a kick in the guts when Nasri scored, but I have to bow to the never-say-die attitude of our players."
Wenger's refusal to move on from the Taylor/Eduardo incident in his pre-match pronouncements – even though the guilty party now plays for Watford – ensured he was booed throughout. However, the "game of hate" tag often looked a misnomer as both sides tried to establish a passing rhythm on a rutted surface. There was greater antipathy in the stands, especially after the home crowd's chorus of "There's only one Martin Taylor".
Arsenal's claim to the moral high ground was weakened by early bookings for Alex Song and Gaël Clichy after they respectively tripped James McFadden and body-checked Gardner. Wenger and his assistant, Pat Rice, each engaged the fourth official, Anthony Taylor, in animated discussion following the second yellow card. McLeish and his No 2, Roy Aitken, then berated Mr Taylor when Fabregas left the field for treatment after Gardner's challenge and then appeared to return without permission.
Back at the match, Birmingham arguably had the better scoring opportunities in the first half. McFadden shot narrowly wide while Almunia made a fingertip save to keep out a Cameron Jerome shot. Arsenal appealed in vain for a penalty when Theo Walcott came up against Liam Ridgewell's superior upper-body strength while Sol Campbell headed over a Fabregas corner.
The heaviest challenge of the match was by Arsenal's Denilson on Gardner shortly after the hour. The Brazilian escaped a caution, but from Barry Ferguson's free-kick, Roger Johnson's side-footed effort saw the ball loop against the far post. As it rebounded it struck the other Birmingham centre-back, Scott Dann, and flew over the bar from almost underneath it.
Nasri's intervention should have floored Birmingham. Instead they found a hero in the ageless Phillips, with a helping hand from Almunia.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Bowyer
Match rating: 6/10