Arsenal kept the pressure on the two Manchester clubs with an efficient win over struggling Birmingham.
The away side were on top right from the start and, after Robin Van Persie gave Arsene Wenger’s side the lead after twelve minutes, the Midlands club never looked like getting back into the game.
In what turned out to be a rather drab affair Arsenal doubled their lead midway through the second half, Samir Nasri scoring his 13th goal of the season before fine interplay between the Frenchman and Cesc Fabregas resulted in Birmingham defender Roger Johnson putting the ball into his own net.
|Picture courtesy of ESPN
After the midweek disappointment of conceding a late equaliser against Wigan, Wenger decided to ring the changes once again, making eight amendments to that side that faced the Latics. The likes of Gael Clichy, Fabregas, Nasri and Theo Walcott all returned, as did birthday boy Jack Wilshere, celebrating his 19th birthday today. For Birmingham, though, it was an unchanged line-up to that which fought for a draw against Manchester United midweek, with Lee Bowyer, Barry Ferguson and Scott Gardner making up a central midfield which needed to control of the middle of the pitch.
They didn’t, and thus Arsenal dominated. The possession stats (53% to Arsenal) don’t even tell half the story; the Gunners ruled the midfield and never let Birmingham have any time on the ball.
While Fabregas and Nasri were the conductors, though, it was Walcott you was breaking Birmingham’s rhythm early on, breezing past an awkward-looking Liam Ridgewell down the right-hand-side, winning a free kick for his side. The free kick came to nothing but the danger was there for all to see.
Arsenal’s technically gifted midfield of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas enjoyed vast amounts of time on the ball, with Alex Song used in an almost stopper-esque roll behind them. The five in midfield worked well for Arsenal, with Nasri coming inside more often than not, but it was the lone front man, Van Persie, who was the carver of the first chance after ten minutes.
Former Manchester United ‘keeper Ben Foster picked up a back-pass and, from the resulting free-kick, Van Persie curled a shot straight into the young goalkeeper’s hands. This was only a hint as to what was to come, though, as, just two minutes later, referee Peter Walton adjudged that the Dutchman was pulled back after a fine ball through from Fabregas. Van Persie seemed to go down with great ease but he soon dusted himself off before smashing the ball into the back of the net, although the shot seemed to take a significant deflection off Lee Bowyer who had been left exposed after Fabregas cleverly left a gap in a poorly formed wall.
Birmingham, rather than sitting back and taking the onslaught that was Arsenal’s attacking play, decided to attack at will and, within minutes of conceding the goal, went close to equalising with a free kick of their own. Larsson curled an effort from 25 yards but Lukasz Fabianski was more than equal to the effort, tipping it round the post.
The Gunners began to control the game more and more, though, after that chance and, with St Andrews suddenly desperately quiet, Ridgewell was booked for another foul on Walcott, who was menacing once again.
The big refereeing decision of the night, however, was to come eight minutes before half-time. A good-looking cross into the area seemed to hit Van Persie on the arm but, with Alex McLeish screaming for a penalty on the touchline, Walton waved play on. The striker then nearly doubled Arsenal’s lead, racing up the other end to only be denied by Foster with a fine save.
The first half was hardly enthralling action and the second wasn’t much better, although Scott Dann’s foul on Walcott earned him a yellow card early on. That meant three of Birmingham’s four defenders were on yellow cards, so Arsenal were allowed to play the ball around without being hassled so much, although a stamp on Bacary Sagna from Bowyer went unnoticed by the referee.
Arsenal should have doubled their lead just under the hour mark as Wilshere placed the ball over the bar from eight yards after fine work down the right-wing from Walcott and a cute lay-off from Van Persie. It wasn’t long, though, before Arsenal’s lead was increased.
A piercing run from Nasri at the Birmingham defence resulted in the midfielder slamming home his ninth Premier League goal this season, which is one more than he’s got in his two previous Arsenal campaigns put together.
And Arsenal added to their lead just seven minutes later, with Nasri again at the heart of the attack. Sensational footwork from the Frenchman inside the area laid the ball on a plate for Fabregas, who played a nice one-two with Nasri outside the area, but his shot was parried by Foster. The ball, though, bounced onto Dann, then off Johnson and then into the net; the hapless look on the Birmingham defender’s face pretty much told the story.
After the disappointing performance seen away at Wigan, a dominating and powerful showing away at Birmingham was exactly what was needed for Arsenal. The play might not have been as pulsating as has become expected with the Gunners but the fine passing and expert movement was certainly a delight to watch. The combinations of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas bode well and Walcott seems to pose more of a threat week by week.
Arsenal now sit two points behind Manchester City, who have played a game more, but it is Manchester United who seem to be steaming away with the league, sitting pretty at the top, level on points with their city rivals with two games in hand. For Birmingham, their difficult season continues, with the Midlands club struggling in the relegation zone, above bottom club Wolves by a mere point.