Birmingham taste Carling Cup glory as Arsenal face defining run
Arsenal 1 Birmingham City 2: It is a measure of the self-belief of Wojciech Szczesny that at the end of the game he consoled his team-mates and, when the time came for Arsenal to go up the steps to collect their losers' medals, he jutted out his chin and was one of the first up to the Royal Box.
The Arsenal goalkeeper had just played a central role in the farcical events one minute from extra time that lost his side the chance of their first trophy in almost six long years. You have to admire his strength of character but then this was only the 16th senior appearance of his career. For many of the Arsenal fans wearing expressions of horror this was just the latest foul-up of many in recent years.
It was a great cup final and the outpouring of joy from the Birmingham City players and their supporters was a reminder that for all the weekly grind of Premier League survival, there is nothing quite like the euphoria of winning a trophy to transform the mood of a club.
Over the course of a season Alex McLeish's players are nothing like as accomplished as Arsène Wenger's but over the course of a rainy February afternoon at Wembley they were their equal and when a mix-up between Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny presented Birmingham with a match-winning chance they took it.
As for Arsenal, the trophy that was supposed to signal the beginning of an era slipped embarrassingly away. This is still a very talented young team with the brilliant Jack Wilshere at its heart. They might still eliminate Barcelona from the Champions League a week tomorrow. The Carling Cup is still only the Carling Cup. But yesterday was a cup final, and no team likes to lose one of those.
So the wait for a trophy goes on and after almost six seasons it is starting to get tiresome. Yet if, in eight days' time, Arsenal are flying home from Spain in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, this game will be dismissed as an irrelevance. Defeat in the competition that, most seasons, Arsenal cannot even be bothered to win is not the end of the world. But if it precipitates a falling away in Arsenal's league and European form – then that would be a disaster.
Robin van Persie, who scored a brilliant equaliser in the first half, is injured. Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas are already out. Leyton Orient await on Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth-round replay and there is the visit of Sunderland on Saturday before the trip to Barcelona next week. The next eight days will not be easy.
There were, however, no complaints from Wenger, who knew he had seen the Birmingham players give the performance of their lives. They should have had a penalty in the first two minutes when Lee Bowyer went through on goal and Szczesny brought him down but Bowyer had already been wrongly flagged for offside.
Some referees would have sent off Szczesny had the offside not been given. Then later in the first half, Koscielny appeared to go studs up on Bowyer and got away with it. McLeish said later that if the roles had been reversed then Bowyer might well have been more harshly treated and he could well be right.
In the end Birmingham got it right at the crucial moments of the game and they deserved to win. Arsenal dominated the latter stages of the second half before they conceded the second goal but they ran up against some sensational individual performances from the likes of Ben Foster, Roger Johnson and Bowyer.
At one point both Johnson – who had not trained all week because of a calf injury – and his central defensive partner Martin Jiranek were both limping heavily but neither of them came off the pitch. For Birmingham it was that kind of day – the club's first major trophy in 48 years. For Arsenal it was not even their most important game this month and although their players wanted to win, that too must have been a factor.
McLeish's selection of Nikola Zigic was key and he caused chaos in Arsenal's defence. After Johnson won the first header from Sebastian Larsson's corner on 28 minutes, Zigic beat Van Persie and Szczesny to the ball to head in from close range. Soon after, Craig Gardner looked like he was brought down on the edge of the area by Johan Djourou, who got away with it.
Arsenal's equaliser was an excellent finish from Van Persie, who injured himself in the process. First, Wilshere struck the bar with his shot and then Andrei Arshavin recycled the ball on the right, creating the space for a cross that Van Persie volleyed with his weaker right foot around Jiranek, coming round on the defender's blind side.
Keith Fahey's shot hit the post before the hour but there were times in the second half when McLeish's players were hanging on as Arsenal increased the pressure. Their possession was telling and Wenger brought on Marouane Chamakh as well as Nicklas Bendtner, on for Van Persie, to finish the job. Foster saved well from a Samir Nasri shot.
McLeish said later that he recognised he needed to change the "dynamic of the game" and he did so by bringing on his new signing Obafemi Martins. McLeish was about to bring on Cameron Jerome for Zigic but left the Serb on for one more attack and the striker played a crucial role in the winning goal.
It was Zigic who headed on Foster's long ball forward. Koscielny seemed about to clear just a few yards in front of Szczesny but, at the last moment, decided against it and withdrew his foot. The Arsenal goalkeeper failed to react in time and the ball bounced off him, finding its way to Martins, whose job of finishing was a lot easier than all those somersaults he performed in celebration.
It was a rousing end to a Carling Cup final which despite Arsenal having said they desperately wanted to win, they could never have wanted as much as Birmingham so evidently did. That was obvious from the way they played and the way they celebrated. It would be foolish to write Arsenal off on the basis of this game alone. It is not this final that defines their season, but how they react over the next eight days.
Man of the match: Johnson
Booked: Arsenal Koscielny, Clichy. Birmingham Larsson, Ferguson, Jerome