x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

McLeish's wait over, Wenger's continues

Birmingham City capitalise on a late blunder to lift the Carling Cup, their first trophy since 1963, while Arsenal's drought for silverware extends into a sixth year.

ALSO: Martins: I'll never score an easier goal

Charlie Chaplin was a Birmingham fan and he would have been rooting for them against Arsenal

Carling Cup has enjoyed a renaissance

For one the impatient wait is over; the other must again look back on a once-shared date. As they traversed Wembley Way en route to this League Cup climax, May 2005 stood oddly significant to two storied men of football.

That long past summer, Arsene Wenger laid hands on the FA Cup, the 10th major trophy of a coaching career that claim to have fundamentally changed the face of English football.

Four hundred miles north, Alex McLeish could huddle Scottish Premier League and League Cup trophies together, triumphs six and seven of a managerial path that had taken him from Motherwell a decade previously, through Hibernian, and on to Glasgow Rangers.

Their strategies have been as distinct as their trajectories since then.

Forced into a fundamental rethink of his stewardship by the necessity of Arsenal's stadium move, Wenger remained at his club, placing an unprecedented emphasis on youth and waging a philosophical war for passing football.

McLeish lasted just one more season at Ibrox, his departure and the ill-fated succession of Paul Le Guen announced long before its close.

His next posting was to be with the Scottish national team, where strong words and smart tactics took his side to the cusp European Championship qualification.

The offer of a Premier League job with Birmingham City arrived in November 2007.

There McLeish has survived the usually fatal change of ownership, taking Birmingham to their most elevated League finish in half a century last season, and this first cup final in a decade. The combination of studied pragmatism and thoughtful invention that delivered such success was replicated here.

Though Birmingham have often started with dual centre forwards of late it was no sensible option on the deep, wide spaces of Wembley.

With three goals in his preceding four outings and an unsettling 6ft 8ins presence at set pieces, Nikola Zigic was an obvious starter, but the Serb's chronic lack of pace necessitated some tactical imagination.

McLeish's solution was to anchor his midfield with Barry Ferguson's visionary passing while deploying Lee Bowyer and Craig Gardner as two hard-running central midfielders charged with breaking between the lines into the space beyond Zigic. The dividend should have been immediate.

With less than two minutes on the referee's stopwatch, Zigic directed a knock-down invitingly behind the Arsenal back four, yet far enough out that Wojciech Szczesny had to move far from his goal-line.

Bowyer collected, touched the ball away from the goalkeeper, and waited for the foul.

What would have been a clear penalty followed, only for Birmingham to be denied by an incorrect offside flag against Bowyer. Gael Clichy had played him on by at least two yards.

Arsenal, though, were unsettled, helping Birmingham in the one area where they had a clear advantage in ability. No team has scored a higher percentage of their Premier League goals from dead balls this season than Birmingham; and none conceded a higher percentage than Arsenal. A cleverly designed early corner kick produced another.

McLeish instructed his team to load the six-yard box as Arsenal defenders doubled up on Zigic. Sebastian Larsson then flighted his corner to the back of the penalty area for Roger Johnson to head at goal.

The unexpected line, confused Arsenal's defence, but not Zigic who had already moved towards Johnson, creating the room to twist and flick the ball past Szczesny.

Faced by still more panicked opponents now, Birmingham almost doubled the lead when Gardner was flattened on the edge of the area while moving the ball on to Zigic. This time, Szczesny showed his quality to block.

Wenger's approach to team making is to set a template for his men to play in and wait for intrinsic ability and training ground understanding to take its course. It explains why, deprived of his most important individual in the hamstrung Cesc Fabregas, he chose not to push Jack Wilshere into the Catalan's standard berth behind the centre forward.

Tomas Rosicky played there, retaining Wilshere as one of the joint midfield holders alongside Alex Song.

Wenger's reward was an equaliser when his team badly required it, and one that demonstrated one of their own primary weapons.

With Birmingham pushing bodies forward at final-third free kick, possession broke to Wilshere five yards outside his own penalty area.

Carrying the ball for one end to the other, the teenager exchanged passes with Andrey Arshavin before clattering a shot off the crossbar. The rebound broke back to Arshavin, who crossed for Robin van Persie to throw his body into a volley that was as brave as it was beautiful.

As the second half grew yet more intense, initial substitutions were enforced. Jean Beausejour and Nicklas Bendtner replaced the battered Gardner and Van Persie.

Seeing his team prevailing physically (their stamina and zealous tackling both taking toll), Wenger added another fresh forward as Ben Foster denied him with a succession of saves. McLeish's response was to employ Obafemi Martins as an outlet for his tired defenders and a fleet-footed threat to the opposition's.

Then sheer fortune decided the game. With McLeish preparing to remove the exhausted Zigic, Birmigham's talisman outdid Johan Djourou to a long free kick. Szczesny or Laurent Koscielny could have cleared or gathered; instead they collided in a confused heap, the ball breaking for Martins to rattle into empty net.

McLeish leapt around in ecstasy. Wenger must wait a little longer.

 

sports@thenational.ae