x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Phillips strikes late to ruin Wenger's day

In a repeat of his last visit two years ago, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, left St Andrew's angry.

Arsene Wenger slumps to the ground after Birmingham scored their late equaliser.
Arsene Wenger slumps to the ground after Birmingham scored their late equaliser.

BIRMINGHAM // In a repeat of his last visit two years ago, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, left St Andrew's angry. Then, Birmingham fought back for a point with a late penalty to hurt their title chances and the Frenchman fumed over Eduardo's horrific leg break. Yesterday, Kevin Phillips denied them two valuable points with an injury-time equaliser and Cesc Fabregas suffered a knee injury that has made him doubtful for the Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona on Wednesday.

Wenger could not hide his frustration as he highlighted the first-half challenge by Craig Gardner that caught Fabregas and went unpunished. "It was a bad tackle. One more," he said. When pressed on the subject, he added: "Leave me alone, for ****s sake. I can give you my opinion on the football, but don't try to drag me into your controversy." But Wenger has obviously not forgotten nor forgiven Martin Taylor's challenge on Eduardo and the Ryan Shawcross tackle that ruled Aaron Ramsey, the Gunners midfielder, out for the season with a similar injury. Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, did not agree and felt Wenger's side were worried about this game.

"It was a robust tackle. I know what Arsene is getting at and he will be talking about the follow-through [from Gardner's tackle]," he said. "The impact can hurt a player, but there were a few Arsenal tackles of a similar ilk. I don't think there's a big vendetta against Arsenal and teams saying let's make bad tackles against them. "I saw the mind games stuff before the game and it made me think that Arsenal were apprehensive about coming here."

Arsenal's first-half effort seemed to suggest McLeish was right. Wenger was dismayed when Theo Walcott burst into the box and was felled by an outstretched leg of Liam Ridgewell. No penalty was given. Wenger had relied on the pace of Walcott to unsettle the Birmingham defence. It almost worked in the 18th minute when Fabregas lofted a high ball into the box. As Dann hesitated, Walcott nipped inside, but Joe Hart advanced quickly to block his attempted lob.

But Birmingham had their own paceman in Cameron Jerome, who forced Manuel Almunia to push away a 20-yard drive. The Arsenal keeper had a let-off in the 62nd minute. Gardner launched a long free kick into the box which Roger Johnson stretched superbly to meet. The ball looped across goal and struck a post before rebounding against the onrushing Scott Dann and over the bar. The introduction of Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin lifted Arsenal. They combined instantly for a chance in the 73rd minute, but Nasri fired a shot straight at Hart.

But he got his power and accuracy just right in the 81st minute. As Wenger called Eduardo to the bench to prepare for what would have been an emotional appearance, Nasri picked up the ball on the right touchline, moved forward unchallenged and then powered a shot into the corner. Eduardo sat back down and Hart made a flying save to keep out a Fabregas free kick. Birmingham had one last effort which paid off. Gardner chipped into the box and Bacary Sagna's clearance hit Phillips and was pushed up and back into his own net by Almunia.

McLeish said: "Kevin is in there where it hurts again like he has done in his career. I've got to bow to the never-say-die attitude of my players." Wenger added: "I think it's a big blow for our title [hopes]. We were in a position where we had to win all our games and not to win, is a big blow to our chances." akhan@thenational.ae