Arsenal 1 Birmingham City 1: Arsenal pegged back by O'Connor

Off-colour Gunners let top spot slip after being held to their second home draw of the week

Steve Tongue@stevetongue
Sunday 13 January 2008 01:00

It looked a long and winding road back after they had been outplayed for 45 minutes, but Birmingham City, true to their theme song, kept right on to the end of it and emerged with an unlikely point to ease their position in the bottom six. Arsenal, well below their best for the second time in a week, thus offered Manchester United the opportunity to replace them as Premier League leaders by failing to overcome a dogged defence in which Liam Ridgewell was outstanding.

The worrying difference from the identical scoreline in the Carling Cup against Tottenham last Wednesday was that this was Arsène Wenger's first-choice team. True, three players were away at the African Nations Cup but the same applied to the visitors, who could even have become the first away side to win at the Emirates this season but for a heavily disputed penalty.

Emmanuel Adebayor scored from it midway through the first half, when Arsenal were dominant without really flowing. They paid a penalty of their own soon after half-time with Garry O'Connor's equaliser, after which Arsenal again had the possession without making anything of it.

"It looked too easy but we were punished for losing concentration at a set piece," Wenger said. "We were not sharp enough and they defended well."

The manager also revealed that Tomas Rosicky had fallen sick overnight, forcing him to use Theo Walcott, who turned in a second disappointing performance of the week in the 50th game of his senior career. Watched from the main stand by David Beckham, who has been training with Arsenal during the United States close season, Walcott did not look like a man ready to deny the former England captain his 100th cap next month.

With Cesc Fabregas less influential than usual and Alexander Hleb fading after a fine first half, Birmingham were delightedto cling on for what counts as a bonus point in their fight to preserve the status regained last May. Having won his first match as Birmingham manager at Tottenham but only one since, Alex McLeish will be developing a taste for north London.

"It was great to get a point against a special team." he said. "They can go through you like a hot knife through butter, but willing and determination got us through. We need a bit more quality in terms of creativity and I'm optimistic of doing that in the next couple of weeks."

Walcott produced one neat turn and cross early on but found Arsenal more inclined to attack the other flank, from where their controversial goal came after 21 minutes.

Eduardo da Silva, receiving from Hleb, was tackled by Stephen Kelly, who slid in through the Arsenal man's legs but took the ball. Adebayor's penalty just eluded the groping fingers of Maik Taylor, who had led Birmingham's protests at the decision by Phil Dowd.

Although the visitors struggled to cross the halfway line for long spells they might even have been ahead in the 15th minute. Olivier Kapo, back in favour, sent Cameron Jerome through to aim at the far post, Manuel Almunia pulling off a fine save low down with his left hand. That proved to be Birmingham's only threat of the first half that Arsenal finished in apparent control.

So it was all the more unexpected that an equalising goal should arrive only three minutes after the interval. The visitors capitalised on a bright start by winning a corner on the left that Sebastian Larsson, one of their two former Arsenal players, whipped across for O'Connor to lunge in ahead of Mathieu Flamini and head in.

With the home crowd roused, Fabregas set up Adebayor for a shot blocked by Ridgewell and then placed a free-kick to the far post that Philippe Senderos met well, bringing Taylor's only save of the second half. Walcott's disappointing afternoon ended 25 minutes early when Nicklas Bendtner came on to replace him for a final period in which Birmingham pulled 10 men back.

Ridgewell continued to set a superb example, throwing himself in the way of everything,and Arsenal's frustration was summed up by Hleb's centre in added time passing untouched across the face of goal.

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