Carling Cup Final Arsenal 1—Birmingham City 2

A battle of curses can have only one winner.


Zigic headerEverything about Nikola Zigic is straightforward, which didn’t seem to matter when playing Arsenal. Zigic scored off a header twice in three matches against the Gunners.

Since the days of high school English, when something ominous happens in or around the month of March, the Ides of March and Julius Caeser are invoked. “At they have come, but not gone”, the soothsayer told Caeser. The truth of prophesy is somewhere between on its way and already arrived. But there is no need bring Julius Caeser’s foreboding into a Carling Cup final that already has two curses taking up all the space.

As soon as Birmingham and Arsenal emerged as this year’s finalists, new terms were introduced to the match. A Cup final, like a derby, changes the terms between two teams, by scrambling the old narrative with new ingredients. From here things get messy with all the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.

Birmingham’s gypsy curse should have expired in 2006. Expelled from land to be used for the new St Andrew stadium, the gypsies specified that it would last for a hundred years, but could have meant a little longer than that given where Birmingham City find themselves this season. Over their last six league meetings with Arsenal, they have yet to win, and their poorest result, a 3—0 home defeat, was less than two months ago. Arsenal’s comfortable away win has contributed to an unbeaten league run stretching back to mid December.

But this run of form has disclaimers marbled throughout its tissue. In their preceding six matches, Arsenal have scored more than two goals once—the 4—4 draw with Newcastle. The offense is not clicking, there’s an apprehension going forward; and if it’s not from the start of the match, then it forms through the disintegration of the dominant but sterile opening.

Arsenal’s trophy curse is a monkey on the back in comparison, but in a cup final, the two are potentially equally paralyzing. If Arsenal could have chosen the opponent upon which to change the course of recent history, it is doubtful that Birmingham would have been nominated. In theory at least, a Birmingham at their best, fit snugly into Arsenal’s weak spot.

If Birmingham has one consistently admirable trait (albeit less on display this season than last) it is a fibrous resilience, an exoskeleton to withstand repeated stomping. Severely outclassed in all areas by Arsenal, Alex McLeish would bolster this resilience with an added layer of enamel by playing a narrow 4-5-1.

A conservative strategy was predictable with a cup on the line, but Birmingham’s adjustments were not only tactical, but psychological as well. Stiffening and congesting the center of the pitch was a sensible means to thwart Arsenal’s muscular midfield, planting layers of obstacles to fracture Arsenal’s passing game and flow, which proved very effective with Tomáš Rosicky, lacking all artistic effect, standing in for the injured Cesc Fábregas. Birmingham’s sensible strategy forced them to implement another very sensible corollary—Nikola Zigic’s head as the lone scoring threat.

Reinforcing the midfield is not an innovative approach when encountering Arsenal. Numerous teams have relied exclusively on a deep-lying five-man midfield to negate the disadvantage. This has successfully frustrated Arsenal now and again, but Arsenal’s reply lies in an overwhelming talent expected to find its way around these simple measures.

While dominance was not undisputed, Arsenal has their early customary control until they conceded the first goal in the 28th minute, initiated from a Birmingham corner kick.

Birmingham first header Koscielny Laurent Koscielny is initially well-positioned to intercept the incoming corner kick.

The corner was sent not into the mass of players crashing toward goal, but behind it, where a Birmingham player was able to head it back toward goal and on to the head of Nicola Zigic who, with back to goal, flicked it past Wojciech Szczesny for the lead. The threadbare strategy laid out for all to see was all the more surprising since it produced exactly what it was capable of without encounter the equally obvious counter-measures.

This sequence immediately invoked a number of identical sequences from the past: Sunderland’s header leading to Darren Bent’s equalizing goal in stoppage time; Bratislav Ivanovic’s goal that sent panic into Arsenal’s 3—1 lead against Chelsea; and Younes Kaboul’s late winner last October at the Emirates. In each of these cases, the Arsenal defense conceded positioning, allowing the opposition to claim space in front of the marking defender.

But it’s as if Birmingham’s doubled resilience pointed directly to Arsenal’s psychological frailty and nerves, calling out their darkest trauma into the sunlight. Arsenal’s second half push to find the winner was not to materialize, in part due to a couple of fantastic late save by Ben Foster. The disastrous communication breakdown between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny that led to Birmingham’s surreal second goal was a cruel reminder to an Arsenal on the cusp of precious silverware that if they thought the trophy drought had come, it was not gone.

3/2/11

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