A huge defensive mix up gifted Birmingham the Carling Cup, as Obafemi Martins tapped in from close range to stun Arsenal.
Arsenal bottled it. They won't get a better chance to put an end to their six year wait to win a trophy. At 1-1 in the dying moments a colossal mix up between Laurent Koscielny who went to clear, however pulled out, and left an aimless Nicola Zigic header to Wojciech Szczesny, who failed to catch the header, leaving Martins to steal the Cup Final. Birmingham had originally taken the lead in the first half as Zigic rose highest to a Roger Johnson header. Arsenal’s stand in captain Robin Van Persie volleyed home superbly from an Andrey Arshavin cross. With Arsenal creating and wasting chances, mainly down to Ben Foster’s heroics in the Birmingham goal, the game looked to be heading for another 30 minutes, until Arsenal gifted sub Martins a late winner
Arsenal were lucky not to go down to ten men as Lee Bowyer was brought down by Szczesny in the penalty box, only to see the Birmingham midfielder flagged incorrectly for offside. The first real chance of note however fell to Arsene Wenger’s side as Samir Nasri collected a one-two from Van Persie, then found Arshavin with a great pass, only for the Russian to fire his effort straight at Foster’s legs.
Arsenal probably should have taken the lead when Johan Djourou got ahead of Johnson put completely mistimed his header. Arsenal were beginning to dominate, and Nasri again worked well to create a chance for himself, and instead of crossing decided to shoot but fired high and wide.
Against the run of play Birmingham then took the lead, after Johnson beat Koscielny to a Seb Larsson corner, and the big centre half’s header was helped on by Zigic who beat Szczesny to the ball, to give Alex McLeish’s side a surprise lead. Arsenal nearly levelled immediately as Van Persie met a Bacary Sagna cross, only to see his header go marginally wide.
Birmingham’s lead though only lasted 11 minutes as Van Persie volleyed around Martin Jiranek to equalise. A quick break-away led by the impressive Jack Wilshere, who found Van Persie, and as the move continued, the ball found itself to Wilshere again whose curling effort bounced back off the bar; Birmingham failed to clear and Arshavin crossed around Liam Ridgewell for Van Persie to expertly volley home. The Dutchman picked up an injury in the action that saw his side level the scores up at 1-1.
There was one last chance before half-time for Arsenal as Nasri’s long range effort was well saved by Foster, which was shortly followed by Mike Dean whistle which brought to an end an action packed first half.
Birmingham came out of the traps the quickest in the second half and were unlucky not to re-gain the lead after Keith Fahey, a surprise inclusion in the starting XI, saw his original shot blocked by own his own team-mate Zigic, with the rebound falling perfectly to the Irishman who struck a sweet shot which beat Szczesny in the Arsenal goal, only to bounce out of the post.
The tireless midfield duo of Barry Ferguson and Bowyer pressed and harried the Arsenal midfield all game long. And with Johnson in particular performing heroics at the back, despite clearly playing through the pain barrier, Arsenal failed to really create many clear cut chances. With the injury to Cesc Fabregas, the 19-year old Wilshere stepped up and was dominating the midfield with his clever movement.
Both sides made early changes in the second half with the quiet Craig Gardner coming off for Birmingham who was replaced by Jean Beausejour, with Van Persie coming off, clearly affected by the injury he picked up when scoring the goal, to be replaced by the Dane Nicklas Bendtner.
Nasri was becoming more and more effective as the game wore on and possibly should’ve passed, instead deciding to shoot, which was easily saved by Foster in the Birmingham goal. Gael Clichy does well to follow the run of the ageless Stephen Carr, and lead an Arsenal counter attack, which gives Nasri another chance, only to see his effort saved again by Foster.
The England keeper then made arguably his best save of the game, as Bendtner cut inside and his deflected shot was superbly caught by Foster, with Nasri lurking in the six-yard box for what would have been a simple tap-in.
Jiranek was caught in possession by sub Marouane Chamakh who found Wilshere with a tidy pass, whose touch was heavy and was lucky to find Tomas Rosicky who saw his back-heeled effort smothered by the man of the match Foster. Nasri then saw his fourth shot on target of the match brilliantly saved by Foster. McLeish made the vital substitution when he brought on ex-Newcastle man Martins on for the tireless Fahey.
Then came the game’s huge moment; A Foster free kick was lumped high, and flicked on by Zigic, only for Koscielny and Szczesny to make a meal out of the loose ball, giving sub Martins the easiest of winners.
With the goal coming so late in the game it gave Arsenal very little time to get a second equaliser, in fact Birmingham created the last couple of chances; firstly when Martins raced onto a long Ridgewell pass and his shot was saved by Szczesny who came miles out of his area to block the shot. The second chance fell to Martins again, who used his pace to beat Koscielny and then round Szczesny only to be crowded out by the Arsenal defence.
Not long after Dean brought an end to the game; which brought jubilant scenes with Birmingham players and fans alike. You could see the disappointment etched on the Arsenal players’ faces when they collected their losers’ medals, in complete contrast to the ecstasy show by the Birmingham players, in particular when the captain Carr lifted the Carling Cup.
Arsenal now have to pick themselves up from this disappointment as they’ve important games coming thick and fast; whereas Birmingham can celebrate the most unlikeliest of wins, in the knowledge they are out of the relegation zone with games in hand.