Birmingham City 1
Manchester United 1
-Dann (og) 63
Manchester United missed out on the opportunity to overtake Chelsea at the top of the Premier League tonight when they became the latest victims of Birmingham's remarkable progress, which has Alex McLeish's side unbeaten in their past 13 games – 12 of them in the league, a club record.
This match had considerable significance for both teams. Birmingham were keen to maintain their extraordinary bid for a place in Europe, while United needed to buttress form that had been damaged by successive defeats at the fortress they call Old Trafford. Both managers made their priorities clear last weekend, when they rested key players in the FA Cup. There was no question of that here, and their respective line-ups were at full strength.
Some called this the acid test for Birmingham's potential, but they have undergone more of those than litmus recently. Their spiky defence held Chelsea goalless on Boxing Day, did the same against Manchester City and have conceded just five goals in the past 10 games. If injuries continue to deprive England of centre-halves, Fabio Capello could do worse than take a look at Roger Johnson, the Blues' only ever-present this season. A body-on-the-line defender in the John Terry mould, Johnson has been consistently outstanding since his cheap-as-chips transfer from Cardiff, where he was a key figure in their run to the FA Cup final in 2008. Kevin Keegan, who knows what it takes to play international football, described his performance to ESPN viewers last night as "sensational".
As might have been expected, United made all the running in the first half, but Birmingham were resolution personified and the first attack of consequence was delayed until the 24th minute, when Liam Ridgewell carelessly conceded possession and Antonio Valencia's through pass left Wayne Rooney one-on-one with Joe Hart on the edge of the six-yard box. The England striker would normally be the odds-on favourite in such situations, but Hart is playing as well as any goalkeeper in the league these days and improvised an important save with his feet.
Birmingham were backs to the wall, tackling and blocking as if their lives depended on it, but their indefatigable spirit had its reward in the 39th minute, when James McFadden's corner from the right brought a poor attempt at a headed clearance from Jonny Evans, enabling Lee Bowyer to supply Jerome, who thumped it home at whites-of-the-eyes range. The goal was yet another reminder that Evans and Wes Brown are not centre-halves of title-winning calibre, and that not until Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are back, and at their best, are United likely to keep clean sheets with regularity.
Confidence coursing, Birmingham contributed more as an attacking force after the interval, but Jerome wasted a promising opening with a poor final ball and United drew level in the same minute – the 63rd – in circumstances that sparked pandemonium. Patrice Evra's shot from left to right was diverted in by Dann, who thought Rooney was closer behind him than was the case. Birmingham appealed for offside and the referee's assistant flagged in agreement, only to be overruled because it had been the defender's decisive contact. McLeish had no complaints after studying a video replay, which showed that Ridgewell had played Rooney onside anyway.
The Birmingham manager, who confirmed the midfielder Michel is set to join from Sporting Gijon, praised his players for their resilience, determination and application, adding: "They've shown those qualities all season and this time you can add ability to that. They can be utterly proud of what they have done so far."
Ferguson agreed and said of the protege who played for him at Aberdeen and for Scotland at the 1986 World Cup: "Alex has done a fantastic job. He had players running a hundred miles for him tonight, and he has to take great credit for that."
Birmingham City: Hart Joe, Scott Dann, Liam Ridgewell, Stephen Carr, Lee Bowyer, Barry Ferguson, James McFaden, Sebastian Larsson (Keith Fahey 82), Cameron Jerome, Cristian Benitez.
Manchester United: Tomasz Kuszczak, Jonny Evans, Wes Brown, Patrice Evra, Rafael da Silva, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes (Mame Biram Diouf 81), Park Ji Sung (Ryan Giggs 66), Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney.