Manchester United's point may be enough to silence their noisy neighbours for the time being, but this draw felt like a defeat to them and a victory to Birmingham. That is the way with a last-minute equaliser, especially when it is tinged with controversy.
United, having gone ahead through Dimitar Berbatov's classily taken 15th goal of the season, were easing to a victory which would condemn Birmingham City to start the New Year in the bottom three when Roger Johnson hoisted a high ball into the box. As Rio Ferdinand stooped to head clear Nikola Zigic leaped onto him, the ball bounced off the Serb's arms like a volleyball set, and Lee Bowyer, making one of those late runs he has done for 15 years, stabbed the ball in.
United were furious but referee Lee Mason, who had given the home side little all night, presumably felt Zigic's climb was not a foul, and either did not see the ball hit Zigic's arm, or adjudged it incidental. That is possible, his arms were down by his side, not raised.
That was Alex McLeish's view. The Birmingham manager said: "It came off his arms but doesn't look as if he plays it deliberately. It would have been harsh if it had been disallowed. We had a little bit of luck but I felt overall we got our reward for perseverance."
Alex Ferguson, unsurprisingly, saw it differently. "It's handball and there's a foul on the centre-half. He's gone right through him," said the Manchester United manager. "If the ref can't see that what chance have you got? You expect them to see that in a game of this importance. We outplayed them in the second half and didn't deserve that. It's terribly harsh."
United, who had struck 58 minutes into a tight match, remain unbeaten this season, but they have won once in their eight away matches. Too many draws, said McLeish, have been Birmingham's problem too, not that he was unhappy with this one. Fulham's earlier victory had dropped Birmingham into the bottom three; the point lifted them clear.
McLeish has never beaten his old manager (Ferguson rarely loses to any of his ex-players) and Birmingham have not beaten United since 1978, but the leaders took few chances with their team, the only experimental aspect being Darron Gibson's first start since April.
With Nani injured Ryan Giggs was on the right and Wayne Rooney on the left. Giggs hit the post after 18 minutes, ex-team-mate Ben Foster backpedalling furiously to touch onto the far post, but otherwise both were quiet. Berbatov was United's central figure in a first-half described by Ferguson as "a non-event".
The night was positively balmy by recent standards and temperatures were raised on the pitch too with Mason required to book four players in as many minutes. Anderson and Craig Gardner were cautioned following a flare-up which also involved Barry Ferguson. In quick succession Nemanja Vidic and Lee Bowyer then saw yellow for reckless tackles.
Subdued as United were, it seemed Birmingham lacked the quality to punish them and when Frank Worthington made a guest appearance on the pitch at half-time many a home supporter (and watching neutral) must have wished for the days when the old entertainer was out there with his playing boots on.
Whether a player with Worthington's nocturnal lifestyle could hold down a place in a modern Premier League side is a moot point, but there are certainly too few with his ball-playing talent. One who does possess it, and is also criticised for a perceived lack of effort, is Berbatov and the watching Worthington would have delighted in the touch of skill through which he made the breakthrough. Receiving the ball with his back to goal 30 yards out he flicked it with his heel into the path of Gibson, then turned and broke for a return pass before arrowing a low shot inside the near post.
A few minutes later the Bulgarian deftly sidestepped a tackle on the edge of the box and drove a shot against the post. United were now in control, ironically given City had finally tested Edwin van der Sar shortly before Berbatov scored. A short corner prompted a pinball session in the United box that ended with Gardner volleying into the Dutchman's mid-riff.
Somewhat belatedly McLeish introduced a second striker in Zigic. There were less than ten minutes left but it was enough for the giant Serb to make an impact that may be felt at both ends of the table come May. Both managers pondered the contests to come. "It's a vital point that may be crucial at the end of the season," said McLeish. "Manchester United always have a good chance if they're top at the New Year," said Ferguson.
Birmingham City (4-5-1): Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson (Hleb, 69), Gardner, Ferguson, Bowyer, Beausejour (Zigic, 82); Jerome (Phillips, 85). Substitutes not used Taylor (gk), Derbyshire, Fahey, Jiranek.
Booked Bowyer, Gardner, Dann.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Van der Sar; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Gibson (Hernandez, 90), Carrick; Giggs, Anderson (Fletcher, 73), Rooney; Berbatov. Substitutes not used Kuszczak (gk), Neville, Evans, Obertan, Macheda.
Booked Vidic, Anderson.
Man of the match Berbatov.
Referee L Mason (Lancashire).
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