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Arsenal’s trophy drought continues after gifting Birmingham late Carling Cup winner

Arsenal 1 Birmingham 2

Van Persie 39; Žigić 28, Martins 89

Obafemi Martins capitalised on a late mix-up between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczęsny to give Birmingham City an unexpected but fully deserved Carling Cup triumph and send them into next season’s Europa League. For Arsenal, however, the wait for a first trophy since 2005 continues.

With both Cesc Fàbregas (hamstring) and Theo Walcott (ankle) unavailable after picking up injuries in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over StokeArsène Wenger was forced into changes. A fit again Koscielny replaced Sébastien Squillaci in the heart of defence,  while Andrey Arshavin and – somewhat surprisingly – Tomáš Rosický were included in the starting line-up.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Clichy

Song – Wilshere

Rosický

Nasri – van Persie – Arshavin

Arsenal came into the final having already completed the double over Birmingham in the Premier League, winning 2-1 at the Emirates in October and 3-0 at St Andrew’s on New Year’s Day.

Birmingham start strong, but Arsenal bounce back

Birmingham shaded an enthralling first half, scored first, and could and perhaps should have added a second. But by half-time they could easily have gone in behind as Arsenal came roaring back.

The underdogs had three golden chances in the opening period, and Arsenal could consider themselves a little fortunate to have conceded only once while retaining their full complement of eleven men.

Szczęsny was fortunate not to concede an early penalty which could have seen him dismissed (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The game was barely a minute old when Lee Bowyer was played in behind the Arsenal defence by Nikola Žigić, advanced into the area and was felled by Szczęsny. The assistant referee flagged for offside – he was in fact half a yard onside – saving referee Mike Dean the tricky decision of whether or not to send off the Polish goalkeeper. It was a clear penalty, no question, but Szczęsny did appear to make a genuine attempt to play the ball. To my eyes, it was a yellow at most.

Birmingham did take the lead in the 28th minute, however. After a misplaced pass between Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere led to Sebastian Larsson‘s outswinging corner, Roger Johnson won the first header on the edge of the box and Žigić, three yards out, only needed a flick of his head to help the ball on into the net.

Žigić should have made it 2-0 six minutes later after the ball broke to him in the box, leaving him one-on-one. But as the Serbian giant hesitated, and the equally imposing physical presence of Szczęsny spread himself and made a vital block.

Van Persie's expertly taken goal with his weaker leg brought Arsenal level (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal, surprised by Birmingham’s fast start and possibly constrained by the expectation of being overwhelming favourites, struggled to settle into any kind of rhythm despite creating chances sporadically. Arshavin spun away from Martin Jiránek but Ben Foster saved well with his legs from close range. Samir Nasri danced into the box away from the attentions of three defenders, but shot wide from an angle. And, immediately after Žigić’s goal, Robin van Persie headed just wide from Bacary Sagna‘s cross.

Ironically, the equaliser arrived at the end of Birmingham’s best spell of the half, but it was a goal of the highest quality. A fast break saw Arshavin tee up Wilshere, whose fierce drive from 22 yards rattled the crossbar with Foster beaten. The rebound fell to Arshavin, who drove forward and pulled it back across the face of goal, where van Persie stretched out and hooked the ball into the far corner of the net from eight yards.

Deep into injury time, Arsenal could even have taken the lead, as Nasri’s swerving 30-yarder forced Foster into an awkward save. In truth, it would have been much more than they deserved.

Arsenal offer up a gift horse which Martins gratefully accepts

Buoyed by their late resurgence, Arsenal started the second half brightly. The ever eager Sagna bombed down the right and pulled a ball back to the edge of the box for the arriving Rosický, but his shot was dragged just wide.

Birmingham responded shortly before the hour when Keith Fahey swung his boot from the edge of the box and struck the inside of a post after good perseverance by substitute Jean Beausejour.

As the game entered its final quarter of an hour, Arsenal created five good chances in the space of six minutes but failed to convert any of them. Nasri was twice denied by the excellent Foster, and scuffed a free kick wide. The Birmingham keeper did well to hold a close-range drive by substitute Nicklas Bendtner as Rosický closed looking for the rebound. And the Czech was then denied when his back-heeled flick was saved after Marouane Chamakh (who had just arrived in place of Arshavin) had outmuscled Jiránek on the left touchline.

Koscielny blotted an otherwise solid game with his catastrophic late error (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But the second goal did not arrive, and as extra time beckoned there was always the danger of a late Birmingham winner. With barely a minute of normal time remaining, Foster launched a long free kick forward. The ball bounced, apparently harmlessly, into the Arsenal box. Koscielny swung a wild boot at it and Szczęsny then fumbled the ball as it bounced in front of him, gifting Martins the easiest winning goal he will ever score.

The red half of Wembley placed their heads in their hands, while the blue sections bounced in celebration. For Arsenal fans old enough to remember, it was like watching the 1988 League Cup final defeat to Luton all over again.

At the final whistle, Arsenal players dropped to their knees in disbelief, but a fifth defeat in seven League Cup finals had come in an all too predictable and familiar fashion. Despite relying heavily on the heroics of man of the match Foster, the Blues had earned the right to a slice of good fortune and will now have the opportunity to embark on a Europa League adventure next season.

Post-match reaction & analysis

Arsène Wenger was bitterly disappointed with the way his team had lost the game:

I am bitterly disappointed, like the whole team. We had some problems to start the game, the number of games we played caught up a little bit on us. It took us a while to get into the rhythm and pace of the game. In the second half we were on top, unfortunately we couldn’t score the second goal and, in the end, we made a mistake that left us no time at all to respond.

He admitted the team were equally despondent, but they would have to pick themselves up to face the challenges and opportunities ahead of them:

The team is very disappointed and we will face a lot of questions after that mistake tonight but we have to be strong enough to stand up.

Both of them [Koscielny and Szczesny] are destroyed. I don’t think it’s a good moment for me to add anything. We have to lift them up again and help them, that is what a team is about.

[It could affect us], we don’t deny that. It is a massive disappointment for the team but we have massive challenges in front of us – the Carling Cup is four games, five games but a championship season is 38. We will not throw 38 games away because of one game.

I am confident we have the character and this is a good opportunity to show it.

However, he gave all due credit to Alex McLeish‘s side:

Congratulations to Birmingham, they took advantage of the mistake [and] they took the trophy which hurts us tremendously.

There is not much to be said in terms of tactical analysis. Birmingham were quicker out of the blocks, and even when a sub-par Arsenal had them rocking in the second half they had the competitive spirit and resilience to never stop believing.

Arsenal undoubtedly missed Fàbregas’s creativity and Walcott’s pace, but the team that took the field had more than enough talent to have won the game. Repeated injuries have robbed Rosický of his cutting edge, and as a whole Arsenal’s central trio of the Czech, Wilshere and Alex Song never really exerted their quality on the game. The movement and touch of Van Persie, who hobbled off with 21 minutes left, was also missed at the end.

Defensively, they had generally looked solid until the late, late catastrophe, although the marking on Žigić’s goal had been lax. Sagna was the one outstanding player, defensively sound and covering huge swathes of the Wembley turf to provide many of Arsenal’s most threatening moments down the right.

There is little time for the squad to wallow in self-pity, however. It is back to the FA Cup on Wednesday, as Leyton Orient visit the Emirates for their fifth found replay, before potentially season-defining games in the league against Sunderland and at Barcelona in the Champions League. Win on Wednesday, and they will travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United in an FA Cup quarter-final in two weeks’ time.

There are still three trophies for Wenger’s side to fight for, and how they react to this devastating defeat will reveal everything about the character and togetherness of the squad. How the fans react to the disappointment – as usual, there has been a lot of anger and over-reaction online in the immediate aftermath of the defeat – will say a lot about them too.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

9 Responses to Arsenal’s trophy drought continues after gifting Birmingham late Carling Cup winner

  1. Sheree says:

    I wouldn’t have bet money on the Blues winning but with Arsenal wasting so many chances, and then gifting them a goal, it was like taking candy from a baby – a real upset. I hope this doesn’t throw Arsenal off-course.

    • Tim says:

      Perhaps it was more like taking candy after it has been served up on a plate by said baby? We can’t complain, really. Without playing particularly badly,w e did not play well – credit to Birmingham for that – and having been let off the hook with the non-offside non-penalty early on, we failed to take our chances while we were on top.

      Sadly, we have a history of blowing up spectacularly in domestic finals. It is not just this team or during Wenger’s era either. The catalogue of disaster is a long one: Luton (League Cup) 1988, West Ham 1980 and Ipswich 1978 (both FA Cup), Swindon 1969 (League Cup) … 😦

      The team’s reaction to defeat now – by all accounts they were absolutely gutted in training yesterday, as they should be – will define our season. Either we will get back on track, or the wheels are about to fall off spectacularly.

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