BIRMINGHAM // A landmark day for two Arsenal players. A day of vindication for their manager.
On Cesc Fabregas' 200th Premier League appearance and Jack Wilshere's 18th birthday, Arsenal left a ground that has held horrors for them with three rare points; just the second team to achieve that feat in the past 15 months.
Resilient and resolute, strikes from Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and an own goal kept Arsene Wenger's team within striking range of the league summit.
Victory against a side that overcame Chelsea and held Manchester United this season compensated for the two points handed to Wigan Athletic in midweek by a heavily rotated side.
Victory at a stadium where Eduardo had his leg broken three seasons ago, and where injury-time errors cost them dearly last.
Search as he may Alex McLeish cannot find the striker he is looking for. His team defend with resolve, they are never less than well organised, almost never lose at St Andrew's.
Yet failing to convert stalemates into checkmates has kept Birmingham near the cusp of the drop zone.
"Why are we near the bottom?" said McLeish before kick off. "We haven't scored enough goals. That is the bottom line."
Here, the Scot stationed Cameron Jerome at the head of the same 4-1-4-1 formation that had comeback from a goal down to draw with United on Tuesday. Security was prioritised over flair.
From Wenger there was another comprehensive overhaul of a team required to play three games in five days and scheduled to meet Manchester City on Wednesday. Following eight changes at Wigan, there were eight more to field his strongest XI at St Andrew's.
A threat from the first minute, Fabregas was quickly downed by Roger Johnson's ragged tackle. Stony-faced, Wenger shook his head as the centre-back received a yellow card.
Within minutes there was compensation in a goal. Robin van Persie fell as Scott Dann crossed his stern, winning a questionable free kick 20 yard from goal. Taking it himself, the Dutchman aimed for a gap in Birmingham's wall, hit Lee Bowyer, and watched the ball deflect past Ben Foster.
"We've got Cesc Fabregas, you've got Lee Bowyer," taunted the travelling support.
Birmingham responded with a fine Sebastian Larsson free kick, drawing an astute save from Lukasz Fabianski, and point-blank volley from Johnson that the defender somehow managed to steer over the crossbar.
Under heavy skies and on an unreliable pitch, Arsenal were far from tying the game down. Their task would have been easier had Van Persie not fluffed a close-range chip when played in on the keeper by the vision of Fabregas and Nasri.
Fabregas's start to the second half involved playing in Theo Walcott for a badly miscued shot, back heeling Stephen Carr in the face, and being swiftly bowled over by the home captain.
His team should have extended the lead when an unmarked Wilshere lifted over from 12 yards.
Such generosity was not to continue. Fabregas collected possession just inside Birmingham's half, ran directly at goal, and played a double one-two with Nasri. As soon as the Frenchman reached the box he flew a shot low and hard to Foster's bottom corner.
If Wenger danced in delight at that goal he was less impressed by the referee's failure to penalise Craig Gardner's crude challenge on Wilshere when the foul occurred right in front of his face. It was not one of Peter Walton's better days.
Quicksilver of thought and deed, Fabregas and Nasri exchanged a procession of passes to place the former in on goal again. Though Foster blocked his tight-angled shot, the ball ricocheted off Scott Dann and Johnson for a third. Luck, but Arsenal are now making their own.
West Bromvich 1 // Manchester United 2
West Brom Morrison 14’
Manchester United Rooney 3’, Hernandez 75’
Wayne Rooney could be out of action for two weeks after injuring his left ankle yesterday, as Manchester United stayed top of the table. Earlier, Rooney scored his first goal in open play since March. Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, admitted Gary Neville should have been sent off for bringing down Graham Dorrans in the area and Peter Odemwingie later missed a penalty for the hosts, with the score at 1-1.
West Ham 2 // Wolves 0
Zubar (og) 51’, Sears 79’
Avram Grant, the West Ham manager, reflected on a “very good Christmas” after his side dragged themselves out of the relegation zone with a 2-0 victory over Wolves at Upton Park. Ronald Zubar scored an own goal before Freddie Sears secured three crucial points. Grant, whose side are unbeaten in four games, said: “It has been a very good Christmas. I felt before this run that we were very efficient, but the players are very happy.”
Stoke City 2 // Everton 0
Stoke City Jones 23’, Jagielka (og) 69’
Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, hailed Kenwyne Jones’ return to goalscoring form after the striker set up victory over Everton. The forward struck for the first time since November with a powerful header that opened the scoring. “Kenwyne has done smashing today,” said Pulis. “Although his performances may have dipped a little bit, we have great belief in him. Playing with two wingers suits him and his goal today was a fantastic header.”
Sunderland 3 // Blackburn Rovers 0
Sunderland Welbeck 11’, Bent 19’, Gyan 89’
Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, dedicated the 3-0 victory over Blackburn to sacked colleague Sam Allardyce. Bruce is a friend of Allardyce and was swift to condemn his dismissal by Rovers last month in the aftermath of the game. “I would like to say, that’s for Sam. I hope he has a drink in Dubai, where he is at the moment. To sack someone like Sam and then appoint his coach, I find totally and utterly ridiculous,” said Bruce.