Manchester United missed the chance to retake the Premier League lead as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men were held 1-1 at in-form Birmingham City. But United, seeking redemption after last weekend’s humiliating FA Cup third round defeat to Leeds United, left St. Andrew’s indebted to a controversial equaliser in the second city.
Ferguson declared himself satisfied with a point, although the Scot will know that this is not the stuff of Premier League titles. But grateful for small mercies, United’s manager was happy to take anything back to Manchester after Alex McCleish’s side pushed the Reds to the limit.
United started brightly though, dominating possession through the middle of the park with a three-man central trio of Paul Scholes in the holding role, supported by erstwhile defenders Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick.
Indeed, it was United’s Scottish enforcer Fletcher who created the first chance as United monopolised the opening passages of the match. Then Joe Hart, by far the busier of the two ‘keepers for the opening half-hour, saved superbly from Wayne Rooney. Set clear by the lively Antonio Valencia, United’s leading marksman could not convert in a key moment.
Then chances came for Carrick and Ji-Sung Park in quick succession as the home side defended both desperately and gallantly at times.
But Birmingham isn’t on a 13-match unbeaten streak under Ferguson protegé McCleish without a little of the master’s character. Arriving completely against the run-of-play, Cameron Jerome beat Tomasz Kuszczak just moments before the half-time break as Birmingham scored with the home side’s first chance in the game. Ferguson’s men defended poorly from the home side’s corner, enabling striker Jerome to poke home from yards out.
The goal lifted the home side, who began the second half with intent. Indeed, the outstanding Christian Benitez forced a save from Kuszczak before Jerome wasted another good opportunity.
United, leveling on the hour, was controversially back in the match as referee Mark Clattenburg overruled his assistant’s offside flag. Desperate Birmingham defenders blocked Rooney and then Scholes’ efforts before Scott Dann turned Evra’s shot across the box into his own net.
Birmingham protested but Clattenburg got the decision spot-on with the home side’s defender touching the ball into his own net, therefore eliminating the possibility of offside.
Birmingham and the visitors traded chances, with Evra and Rooney testing Hart in the home goal, while Paul Scholes shot narrowly over before the game ended in more controversy. United’s midfielder enforcer Darren Fletcher saw red for a second bookable offence late in the match.
“I’ve not seen a softer sending off for a long time, it was absolutely ridiculous,” said Ferguson.
“I watched Mark Clattenburg at the Arsenal-Spurs game and you had to have somebody hit by an axe to get booked. There were some weird and wonderful decisions out there.”
And while the Scot has every right to bemoan the dismissal, perhaps one of the more poignant decisions of the afternoon came in attack where United’s Senegalese striker Mame Biram Diouf made his debut as a late substitute. Dimitar Berbatov, not selected in the matchday squad traveling to Birmingham, may yet regret his ambivalent performance against Leeds United last week.
“We played ever so well in the first half but at the moment Birmingham are in such good form and work so hard that I’m satisfied with a point, particularly as we ended with 10 men,” Ferguson said.
“To lose the goal just before half-time after dominating the game was a real sickener.
“But the most important thing is to persevere in situations like that. We have got the experience to do that. But this is a tough league. Birmingham have really improved since they have come into this division.”
Yet for all Birmingham’s good recent form it says something for how far United’s star has fallen in recent months that Ferguson should choose his ‘European’ five-man midfield for an away fixture against one of the Premier League’s less fashionable sides.
United in its pomp expects to win in Birmingham. Yesterday, the team arrived hoping not to lose.