The pre-match hype had suggested that this game would finally signal the coming of age for Wenger's post-Invincibles side. The Carling Cup would be the first stepping-stone in Arsenal's bid for domination of the domestic and European landscape, and would serve as vindication of the manager's policy of buying young, and developing from within.

Sadly for the Gunners, neither side appeared to have read the script. Arsenal, who Wenger had stressed during the week were not lacking in leadership in the absence of their injured captain Fabregas, appeared overawed by the big stage. Birmingham, by contrast, rose to the occasion, reveling in the challenge of not only upsetting the favourites, but also of ending their own trophy drought, which stretched back to 1963.

1st half

Arsenal’s nervousness was clear right from the opening skirmishes. In a moment reminiscent of Arsenal’s last final appearance, when Jens Lehmann saw red early on, Szczesny was saved from being sent off and conceding a penalty by a poor decision from the linesman. Throughout the first half Arsenal’s passing game was nowhere near the standard we have come to expect of them, with the normally excellent Song particularly culpable. It was from a loose Sagna pass that Birmingham forced the corner from which Nikola Zigic put them 1-0 up, with Arsenal conforming to stereotype in displaying a vulnerability when defending set-pieces. Birmingham’s high-pressing game was maintained as the half progressed, and more Arsenal uncertainty created a chance for Zigic, who drew a good save from Szczesny. With Arsenal beginning to settle, Wilshere and Arshavin looked most likely to force an equalizer, and so it proved as great work from Arshavin set up Van Persie’s volleyed equalizer, after Wilshere had struck the bar from outside the box.

2nd half

Having recovered from the shock of going behind, one might have expected Arsenal to settle and begin to turn the screw. The team’s continued anaemic display in the opening 15 minutes of the half suggested that they too believed that the natural order of things would be restored without much effort. Whilst Birmingham threatened little, Arsenal’s penetration was equally minimal, with Rosicky particularly wasteful in possession, and Nasri forced to come off his wing and go searching for the ball. Still the absent figure of Fabregas loomed large. Only when Wenger replaced Van Persie and Arshavin with Bendtner and Chamakh did things begin to open up for the Arsenal forwards, as Foster produced a series of fine saves from Nasri and Rosicky to keep the scores level. As ever with Arsenal, however, there remained that lingering feeling that the opposition is always in with a chance of scoring. Yet not even the most pessimistic of Gooners could have predicted the farcical manner of Birmingham’s winner, served on a plate to the substitute Martins by Koscielny and Scsezny. 2-1, and no time for Arsenal to come back.


Today’s game left not so much a feeling of anger as of emptiness and disappointment. Disappointment that the side’s detractors continue to be proved right in their assessment of our frailties; disappointment that a team so brimful of talent and determination still has no silverware to show for it, as well as concern that this defeat may prove fatal to our fragile confidence.

What’s more, the game provided us with a horrifying glimpse of a future without Cesc Fabregas, should Barcelona eventually get their man. Wilshere and Nasri have proven themselves to be midfielders of the highest calibre this season, yet neither performs the role of heartbeat of the side like our captain. In his absence, the team lacked that spark, that distinctive inventiveness and artistry that has come to define ‘the Arsenal way’. To those who regularly accuse Arsenal of lacking leaders, here too was both affirmation and refutation: Fabregas is our leader, as the wins against Chelsea and Barcelona demonstrated; the problem is that when he is missing there are few who can take his place.

Finally, we should not berate the manager too strongly. Though Birmingham managed to successfully unsettle Arsenal through their high-pressing game, the final was not lost on tactics, but on individual errors and a largely insipid team performance. Though old failings in the problem positions of goalkeeper and defence appeared to re-emerge, we should remember that Szczesny, Koscielny and Djourou have all enjoyed an excellent 2011. If Wenger sticks by his men and his philosophy, as he surely will do, and if the captain avoids further injury, this season could yet be a successful one for Arsenal. Barcelona and Man Utd remain there for the taking. Congratulations are due to Birmingham for what was, on the day, a deserved victory.

MOTM: Foster

"The players are disappointed but we have to pick ourselves up, that's what a team is about. It's a good opportunity to show our mental strength, which I think is great.”

~ Arsene Wenger

“This team has great potential and there are still great targets to be played for this season.”

~ Cesc Fabregas

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