Sunday, 27 February 2011

CARLING CUP FINAL Birmingham 2 Arsenal 1

Obafemi Martins pounced on a calamitous Arsenal defensive mix-up two minutes from time as Birmingham City claimed their first major silverware since 1963 by winning the Carling Cup at Wembley.
Martins, on loan from Rubin Kazan, took advantage of a fatal communication breakdown between Gunners goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny to strike the late blow that clinched victory for Blues boss Alex McLeish and his men, sending their supporters into ecstasy.The striker, on as substitute for Keith Fahey, had the simplest of chances after Koscielny attempted to clear when Szczesny came to collect Nikola Zigic's tame header to extend the north Londoners' six-year wait for a trophy.
Zigic gave Birmingham a first-half lead but Robin van Persie's spectacular volley restored parity before the interval in an enthralling Wembley final.
In contrast to the crestfallen figure of Szczesny, Birmingham were indebted to their keeper Ben Foster - penalty shoot-out hero of Manchester United's win in this competition in 2009 - for a magnificent display that rightly earned him the man-of-the match award.Foster was outstanding throughout, denying Samir Nasri on three occasions and also saving splendidly from Andrey Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner.Birmingham, who also hit the woodwork through Fahey, were a model of determination and resilience as well as positive intent and their success is a tribute to the outstanding work of manager McLeish.
Defender Roger Johnson was another commanding figure and all the bravery displayed by him and his team-mates in the face of a late Arsenal onslaught was rewarded in sensational circumstances in the dying moments.
Arsenal, robbed of captain Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott through injury, never hit the heights and that moment of defensive madness means Wenger has still not laid his hands on a trophy since winning the FA Cup against Manchester United in 2005.
There was a moment of contention almost instantly when Lee Bowyer raced clear into the area and was hauled down by Szczesny for what would have been a penalty and, in all probability, a red card for the keeper.
The Gunners were relieved as the linesman's flag had already been raised - but their opponents were frustrated by the fact that the decision was incorrect.
Arsenal nearly increased Birmingham's sense of injustice when Arshavin forced Foster into a fine save on the turn as the favourites attempted to exert early authority.
Zigic's selection owed much to his obvious aerial threat to Arsenal and McLeish's decision was vindicated as the giant striker headed Birmingham into the lead after 28 minutes.He was able to evade the attentions of a cluster of Arsenal defenders and Szczesny in the six-yard box to head home after Johnson's power in the air caused problems at a corner.And the striker should have doubled his and Birmingham's tally as the north Londoners creaked under pressure but his control let him down at the vital moment, allowing Szczesny to block after good work by Craig Gardner.
Blues were showing discipline and enterprise in equal measure, but Arsenal produced a moment of genuine class to draw level six minutes before half-time.
Jack Wilshere rattled Foster's woodwork from the edge of the area and when Birmingham failed to clear Arshavin crossed for an airborne Van Persie to volley brilliantly beyond the reach of the keeper.
Foster was tested once more as the interval approached, blocking a swerving drive from Nasri as an thrilling first 45 minutes drew to a close.
As the Gunners gathered momentum, Tomas Rosicky was within inches of giving them the perfect start after the break but his crisp, low shot was narrowly off target.
Birmingham suffered a blow early in the second half when the influential Gardner went off injured and was replaced by Jean Beausejour - but McLeish's side brushed off the setback to almost regain the lead.
Fahey's shot carried too much power and direction for Szczesny but, as the massed ranks of Birmingham fans rose to acclaim the strike it bounced off the inside of the post and across the face of goal.
Wenger made a change midway through the half, sending on Bendtner for Van Persie, who took a heavy knock in the act of scoring Arsenal's equaliser.
Foster came to Birmingham's rescue twice in the space of seconds as time ticked away, blocking Nasri's powerful drive before clutching Bendtner's effort at the second attempt.
Arsenal had assumed command and Foster once again demonstrated his agility and quality with a diving save from Nasri as their personal duel continued.
And then, with an extra 30 minutes beckoning came that meltdown between Szczesny and Koscielny - leaving Martins to pounce and win the Carling Cup for Birmingham.

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