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Birmingham 2 - 1 Arsenal: Carling Cup final match report

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  Jack Wilshere of Arsenal holds his head in despair after the Carling Cup Final between Arsenal and Birmingham City at Wembley Stadium on February 27, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27: Jack Wilshere of Arsenal holds his head in despair after the Carling Cup Final between Arsenal and Birmingham City at Wembley Stadium on February 27, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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1 - 0 Nikola Zigic 28'
1 - 1 Robin van Persie 38'
2 - 1 Obafemi Martins 89'

Birmingham City defeated Arsenal today by a final of 2-1 to secure the Carling Cup after a woeful Arsenal error allowed Obafemi Martins to steal in and tap home a late winner.  It was Birmingham's first trophy since they won the same competition in 1963, and for Arsenal, it was a bitter disappointment after making it to a final for the first time since 2007.

The sides were as expected, Arsenal replacing Cesc Fabregas with Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott with Samir Nasri on the right.  Birmingham started on the front foot, and three minutes in, the linesman flagged incorrectly for offside on Lee Bowyer, which was fortunate for Arsenal, as Bowyer had rounded Szczesny before the Pole brought him down in what would have probably been sending-off fashion.  After that opportunity, Arsenal slowly came into the match, Andrei Arshavin testing Ben Foster from seven yards with a turn and a low effort which the Englishman blocked with his feet.

It was to the be the first of numerous good saves on the day for Foster, as it turned out.

Wojciech Szczesny saved a Keith Fahey effort as Birmingham squirmed their way back into the match, gradually stifling Arsenal's midfield play through the middle.  Arshavin scuffed a shot after he caught his foot on the turf and Martin Jiranek blocked a Robin van Persie effort, and then Birmingham put together a dreaded set piece sequence and were ahead.

Arsenal conceded a corner, Sebastian Larsson floated it in, Roger Johnson met it 20 yards from goal, headed it towards Nikola Zigic, and the very large striker got his head to it to send it past a buried Szczesny.  1-0 to the Blues.

The match grew in intensity after the goal, Bowyer getting involved in some feisty discussions.  Birmingham nearly made it two after Craig Gardner was fouled just outside the box, the ball ran through to Zigic, the ref waved play on, and Szczesny had to come out to stifle Zigic's effort from close range.  Birmingham won a free kick on 38 minutes, Arsenal cleared it, and the game was suddenly level.

Arsenal broke from the free kick on the counter, and Jack Wilshere found himself with room to shoot.  He unleashed a dipping shot from 25 yards that smashed back off the crossbar, the rebound finding its way to Arshavin.  The Russian got to the byline, turned, and looped a pass towards van Persie, who spun and volleyed home with a scissors kick past Foster at the far post.  van Persie picked up a knock in the scoring of it, but walked it off and was able to continue.

UPDATE: Arsène Wenger says van Persie has a knee problem in his presser after the match.

Arsenal dominated play until the half-time whistle blew, but were unable to capitalize on their attacking play.  Halftime arrived, 1-1, with Arsenal in the ascendancy.

The second half started much as the first had ended, Arsenal pressing for a second.  They were unable to really test Foster, and Birmingham worked their way back into the match, Fahey hitting the post with a shot 57 minutes in.  Wenger made his first change after 70, bringing on Nicklas Bendtner for the struggling van Persie, and Arsenal started to really make their presence known.

Foster saved a Nasri effort, Arsenal nearly scored on the counter three minutes later, and then Foster produced another brilliant save from Rosicky.  Wenger took off Arhsavin for Marouane Chamakh, a curious move given that Bendtner and Chamakh haven't partnered well all year, but Arsenal kept coming.  Rosicky and Nasri both came close again, Foster standing on his head now, the only man standing between Arsenal and their second.

Alex McLeish decided it was time for a change for the Blues, bringing on Obafemi Martins for Fahey.  Arsenal continued to press, however, but were unable to find a way through.

Disaster then struck as only it does against Arsenal.

Foster lumped a free kick forward, Zigic nodded it on towards Szczesny, and then the unthinkable happened.  Laurent Koscielny tried to clear it from just in front of the Arsenal keeper, who fumbled the ball in his confusion as Koscielny toppled over him, and the sub Martins was there to tap the loose ball home, sending the Blues fans into raptures.  89 minutes gone, 2-1, and Arsenal had no way back despite four minutes of extra time.

It was a horrible way to lose, especially as both Szczesny and Koscielny have been finding a really rich vein of form lately, but the blame must fall at their feet for the goal.  Calls for both to be replaced were numerous after the result, of course, which are irrational, but understandable in the heat of the moment, perhaps.

The team, though, as a whole, must look at their generally slightly off play today, missed passes and spurned opportunities as costly as the mixup at the back.  Birmingham took their chances, and the all-too-familiar story this year for Arsenal re-emerged after it had been thought dead:

FT Stats Arsenal v Birmingham Shots 20-8 On target 8-4 Fouls 17-11 Duels Won 50%-50% Passing accuracy 87%-78% Possession 58%-42%.  (via Orbinho's twitter).

Arsenal must pick themselves up and focus on the three remaining competitions.  They have done too much right this season to let this setback mark the start of disintegration; now that they have the taste of what loss of concentration can bring, hopefully they will make sure that it doesn't happen quite this way again.

On to face Orient on Wednesday.