Though not technically a Premier League contest, the big news of the weekend was clearly Birmingham City's stunning upset of Arsenal in the Carling Cup final at Wembley Stadium. Despite widespread predictions of a Gunners romp and the clear gap in talent between the sides, the game turned out to be a thriller. Credit must go to Alex McLeish for his tactical approach; Birmingham's five-man midfield managed to keep Arsenal from taking control of the proceedings, but City managed to keep Arsenal in check without playing a negative style. Birmingham very nearly put things into immediate doubt when Wojciech Szczesny took down Lee Bowyer in the area, a clear penalty and very likely a sending off for the young Arsenal keeper. Bowyer was judged to be offside however, and another look showed the decision to almost certainly be the wrong one. It was a huge break for the Gunners, as it's difficult to imagine the final result being any more favorable for Arsenal had they been forced to play down a man and without their first choice keeper for 88 minutes given the attacking intent shown by Birmingham City.
Nikola Zigic's inclusion in the lineup raised some eyebrows, but the decision paid dividends in the 28th minute when the Serbian international headed home after Roger Johnson flicked Sebastian Larsson's corner goalwards. Few would make the case that Zigic is a better player than Cameron Jerome but the aerial threat he provides is almost certainly the reason he was chosen to lead the line, and his presence was clearly unsettling to Arsenal's back line. Zigic has been occasionally maligned by Birmingham City fans this season, but his performance in the Carling Cup (which also included an 84th minute winner against bitter rivals Aston Villa in the quarter-finals) is sure to have earned him a bit of rope with the Blues faithful.
Birmingham's lead lasted all of ten minutes, as Arsenal responded to the opener with a furious sequence capped by a stunning volleyed goal from Robin van Persie, Birmingham were clearly rattled by the onslaught and looked relieved as the half-time whistle blew. Unfortunately for the Blues there was more to come in the second half; Arsenal came out of the gate running, finally beginning to dominate possession and give the City back line all they could handle. Birmingham's defense was equal to the task, as was keeper Ben Foster. Foster was named Man of the Match, and rightly so; amongst his eleven saves were several brilliant efforts, including several during a massive siege by the Gunners right at the death. That was largely the story of the day for Birmingham City; as one phase of the team slipped, another was there to pick it up. The defense was largely excellent, but clearly gassed at the end, it looked as though an Arsenal winner was all but inevitable. Instead, Foster was a brick wall.
Which was not the case for his opposite number Szczesny. When it looked for all the world that the game was headed for extra time, Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny got crossed up, Koscielny looking to clear a long punt from Foster that Szczesny would have easily handled. Koscielny instead distracted the young keeper allowing the ball to fall at the feet of Obefami Martins-who arrived at Birmingham City on loan from Rubin Kazan just last month-and the striker had the easiest of winners gifted to him. The stunned look on the faces of the Arsenal players (not to mention their manager and supporters) said it all, and though the Gunners pushed ahead with increased vigor until the end, the final whistle blew with Birmingham City's 2-1 lead in tact.
With the victory the Blues the second major trophy in the club's history and their first since winning the League Cup in 1963. For Arsenal, their trophy drought (currently at a significantly less drawn-out six years) continues, and the culprits are familiar for the Gunners; a weak back line and poor keeping. In the coming days and weeks, we're likely to hear many pundits offer their opinion that Arsene Wenger's well known blind spots have once again cost Arsenal silverware. And while today's ending might have been all too familiar, the overall assessment isn't exactly fair. The error made by Szczesny was undoubtedly a shocker, but it's an error that isn't quite as shocking when you consider that he's a 20 year old playing on a massive stage. Szczesny has been on the balance of things very solid for Arsenal. He's young and has development still to do, but to give up on such a talent because of one poor decision (that was almost certainly not entirely-and quite possibly not even primarily-his fault) is the very definition of reactionary. And while Arsenal's defense will never be confused for the most stout in all the land, it hasn't exactly been poor this season either; the 27 goals the Gunners have allowed ranks fourth in the Premier League. The core is a young one, and while Wenger hasn't necessarily shown an ability to build an impenetrable defense he most certainly has shown an eye for promising young talent.
If there are lessons to take from this game, that Arsenal will never win under Wenger because he refuses to address the club's defensive deficiencies is not amongst them. The bigger-and arguably far more interesting-lesson is that sometimes the narrative crafted beforehand ends up being correct in every sense other than the roles of the main characters end up being reversed. Birmingham City entered the game as a small club with little success in its history facing off against a massive club with only the Blues standing between them and the silverware they so desperately craved. Surely, even if City could make a game of it, the pressure of the 90,00 spectators, Wembley and the Cup would be too much for them to handle in the end? Instead, it was Arsenal that folded under the weight of their own struggles (or at least it seems that way, and it certainly makes for a more interesting story.) The end result is straightforward for Birmingham; a long-craved major honor, a place in the Europa League and a day in the spotlight. For Arsenal, it's rather more complex, and for the sake of the Gunners and their fans, let's hope that sanity prevails.
In comparison to the Carling Cup final, the weekend's Premier League action was less than compelling. Leaders Manchester United extended their lead over Arsenal, a brace from Javier Hernandez followed by late additions by Wayne Rooney and Fabio Da Silva powering a 4-0 thrashing of Wigan at the DW Stadium. The final score was not necessarily indicative of the effort from the two sides, with the score standing at 1-0 from the 17th minute until the 74th and United's last two largely the result of Wigan desperately chasing the game. It's not often that a 4-0 home loss gives hope to a team in the relegation zone, but Wigan should take heart from their performance. For the majority of the game they looked equal to their famous neighbors, and though things got out of hand towards the end a similar performance against most other teams in the Premier League would have likely ended with much happier results for the Latics. Despite sitting at the very bottom of the table, Wigan are just six points shy of 10th place Everton, and though there's slightly more separation in the table than there has been most points this year Wigan are far from buried.
In other news from the relegation battle, Wolves pulled themselves above the drop with a 4-0 thrashing of their own over a free-falling Blackpool. It's tough to imagine that Blackpool spent a not-insignificant amount of the season well above the relegation fray based on their more recent performance, and such a comprehensive defeat at the hands of a club so close in the table will do little to offer confidence to the Tangerines. Their security wasn't done any favors by West Ham's 3-1 defeat of Liverpool, pulling the Hammers from the basement and putting a huge dent in the Reds already slim Champions League odds. Liverpool fell behind early after a beautiful volleyed goal by Scott Parker and Demba Ba gave West Ham a 2-0 cushion heading into the break with a 45th minute headed goal. Glen Johnson's tap-in in the 84th minute looked as though it might make things at least a bit interesting, but Carlton Cole put things well and truly out of reach in injury time. It was a massive victory for West Ham, claiming an unexpected three points that put them behind 17th place Wolverhampton on goal difference alone and a huge blow for the Reds as their concerns now shift from pursuing 4th place to hanging on to a spot in Europa.
The pressure from below increased thanks in part to Aston Villa's impressive 4-1 home victory over a Blackburn side whose difficulties away from Ewood park continue. Especially noteworthy in this game is the fact that Aston Villa somehow managed to score four goals without any of them coming from Darren Bent. Villa's win kept them even with Everton who made their first appearance in the top half with Jermaine Beckford's brace all that was needed for the Toffees top Sunderland 2-0. Newcastle and Bolton meanwhile both kept pace with the rest of their more direct competition, playing out a 1-1 draw that was a somewhat nervous affair for Newcastle after playing down a man for the final 35 minutes following Ryan Taylor's straight-red sending off.
The results in the middle of the table, coupled with Birmingham City laying claim to England's 7th European slot by virtue of their Carling Cup win, further confuses the Europa League chase; one of Chelsea or Tottenham seem assured of at least one of the slots, but six clubs are within six points of the other (assuming, of course, that a club finishing outside of the top six doesn't claim the FA Cup.) If there's been a consistent theme in the league this year, it would have to be parity. That theme was evident in Manchester City and Fulham drawing 1-1 at the Eastlands, a result that saw Roberto Mancini's side booed off the pitch at the final whistle. City are still fairly comfortable in the race for Champions League football, but any hopes they might have had of winning the Premier League title coming into the weekend are almost certainly out the door now. Fulham meanwhile look to have given themselves a solid cushion in terms of the relegation battle, which is increasingly looking like to be a six-team affair.
Two weekday matches with fairly large implications are still to come, with Stoke City hosting West Brom today and Manchester United traveling to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday. A Stoke or West Brom victory could serve to further complicate the Europa and relegation battles respectively, while a win for Chelsea would do wonders for their Champions League hopes. Next week's slate offers the promise of clarifying things as we head into the home-stretch, but for now, things outside of the top four aren't much clearer than they were on August 14th.