Still Arsenal continue to chalk up remarkable statistics in this momentous season. Yesterday they played for 71 minutes before managing their only shot on target and completed the 90 without looking like scoring a goal. Yet they remain within reach of an achievement that would be a justifiable source of pride to every player involved for the rest of their careers by staying unbeaten for a League season; and would therefore be all the more infuriating to miss out on now.
A shock here was no great danger - just one nasty moment when Clinton Morrison wasted a chance midway through the second half - and Highbury did not seem greatly put out. But overall the championship party was one of those where chat is desultory, the drink runs out and nobody wants to dance.
Arsenal had their dancing shoes on at Birmingham last November, skipping to a 3-0 win that broke Liverpool's unbeaten record for the start of a Premiership season, which stood at a modest 12 games. It could hardly have been conceived then that they would be still be going 23 matches later. Even Arsène Wenger is getting excited about the prospect of setting a mark that "people might speak about in 50 years' time". He acknowledged that the game immediately after winning the title is always a difficult one (the Frenchman speaks from experience) and that: "Birmingham defended well, with 10 men behind the ball, and we lacked an edge, which is understandable. We need to find a bit of urgency again and I feel we will, for Portsmouth and Fulham this week will be tricky games."
The difference to this one is that those teams will come forward more willingly than Birmingham, who had learnt their lesson in conceding three goals to counter-attacks at St Andrew's, one of them - like Arsenal's second at Tottenham last week - straight from a corner taken by the home team. The visitors' manager, Steve Bruce, chose to make comparisons with their visit to Highbury last season for a daunting first match as a Premiership club: "They beat us 2-0 and it could have been 15. I wanted to judge just how far we've come and I think we've improved immensely."
A pedigree of four victories in 56 visits to Highbury - the most impressive of them in 1894, and the most recent 47 years ago - did not mark Birmingham down as party poopers. Nor did the absence of the injured Mikael Forssell, whose 19 goals are not enough to have persuaded Chelsea to take him back for next season - and who at Stamford Bridge is making that sort of decision given the uncertainty over next season's manager?
Morrison did duty as the lone central striker, with David Dunn working hard just behind him on his return from injury after two months. Further back, two banks of four were so resolute that the deputy goalkeeper, Ian Bennett, to his undoubted astonishment, was virtually unemployed. Possibly there was some apprehension early on as the party tricks were rolled out, like Gilberto Silva's back-heel for Dennis Bergkamp to chip over the bar, and Jose Antonio Reyes's volley wide. But, remarkably, that was the sum of the champions' threat before half-time.
After an hour's football as dull as the ground has witnessed all season, Thierry Henry tried his quick free-kick trick, curling the ball wide as Bennett scrambled across the goal. A weak cross-shot later from the same player constituted Arsenal's only attempt on target. Wenger had changed the formation by then, moving Bergkamp from the right wing to his proper role just off Henry, and soon sending on Robert Pires to replace Fredrik Ljungberg.
Every one of those icons lacked inspiration, however, and in the 67th minute Highbury held its collective breath as Stephen Clemence brought a low save from Jens Lehmann, and Morrison allowed a perfect centre by Stan Lazaridis to bounce away off his foot.
But at the final whistle there were smiles and hugs all round - for Matthew Upson from his old Arsenal colleagues, and even from Henry for the abrasive Robbie Savage. With three games to go before history can be made, Arsenal's players should have been listening to the delighted Birmingham followers: "Keep right on to the end of the road."
Arsenal 0 Birmingham City 0
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