By Shane Thomas
BIRMINGHAM 0-3 ARSENAL
Arsenal came through a feisty and tetchy encounter to become only the fourth side to beat Birmingham at St Andrews since the Blues were promoted back to the Premier League last season.
Their 3-0 win means that the Gunners hold on to third spot in the league, two points behind both Manchester clubs. And with City arriving at the Emirates on Wednesday, Arsenal know a win will take them up to second.
They will probably have to be more fluent against the team from Eastlands than they were against Birmingham. Especially in the first-half, Arsenal struggled to inject any pace into their play, with their collective touch and final ball preventing them from making the most of any promising opportunities.
However, what Arsenal did have in abundance was a ferocious will to take maximum points after their late concession to Wigan in midweek. At times this resulted in them being too focused on playing at a fast physical tempo rather than their usual "tiki-taka" possession play. But in hindsight, this proved crucial as Birmingham had clearly not taken heed of their conduct in this fixture back in 2008. Referee Peter Walton failed to keep order as Arsenal had to deal with a succession of dangerous tackles, with Roger Johnson lucky to stay on the pitch after a studs-up, over-the-top challenge that scythed down Cesc Fabregas. So it was ironic that the free-kick that led to Arsenal's first goal was probably not a foul. Robin Van Persie went down under minimal contact from Scott Dann to raise the ire of the home support. This was exacerbated by Van Persie's free-kick being deflected into the net off the arm of Lee Bowyer.
The Dutchman had an eventful first-half as his handball in Arsenal's penalty area went unnoticed by Walton. Johnson also missed a sitter following Cameron Jerome's knock-down and ex-Arsenal midfielder Seb Larsson's free-kick was well saved by Lukazs Fabianski. Laurent Koscielny and the superb Johan Djourou managed to deal with the numerous long balls that came their way and marshalled Arsenal to half-time with thier lead intact.
As the second-half began the Gunners pressed home their advantage. They had earned the right to play their football after standing up to Birmingham's roughhouse tactics. Not only that but Birmingham's efforts against Man.Utd on Tuesday night seemed to be catching up with them while most of Arsene Wenger's XI looked fresh after being given a midweek rest. With the home side becoming increasingly enervated, Arsenal had more time and space in which to play. Within an hour the contest was over.
Arsenal had already given a warning shot after both Jack Wilshere and Samir Nasri came close to scoring. Nasri finally doubled the lead after a decoy run from Fabregas gave the Frenchman enough space on the edge of the box to curl a delightful shot into the corner. The best was saved for last as Arsenal kept possession for what seemed like an age, Nasri and Fabregas fizzing the ball around the Birmingham rearguard as if it was under remote control. As Fabregas hit a low shot from a tight angle, it rebounded in off Johnson's knee. Some would deem him unlucky but you could also argue that it was football karma as he should never have still been on the pitch in the first place.
With the contest now over, Walton's abysmal match continued as Lee Bowyer - already on a yellow card - got away with stamping on Bacary Sagna, and then sending him into the advertising hoardings minutes later.
The eventual ease that Arsenal secured their victory should not be underestimated. While they were definitely on the favourable end of the referee's major decisions, let's not forget it was the complete opposite against Wigan. And Birmingham have turned St Andrews into something of a mid-table fortress in the past few months. Their style of play is designed to disrupt and irritate, much like a bluebottle at a picnic. Arsenal did what United, Chelsea, and Spurs have all failed to do and swatted the bluebottle aside.
Fabianski - 7, Sagna - 7, Djourou - 8, Koscielny - 7, Clichy - 7, Song - 7, Wilshere - 6, Fabregas - 7, Walcott - 6, van Persie - 6, Nasri - 7.
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