Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes were dented by a bizarre stoppage time goal by Kevin Phillips as Birmingham salvaged a 1-1 draw at St Andrew’s.
The veteran striker knew little about the equaliser, which came courtesy of an attempted clearance by Bacary Sagna that hit his chest and floated over the line after Manuel Almunia palmed it into the air but failed to halt its progress.
The Gunners looked on course for a seventh straight win when Samir Nasri scored a superb individual effort on 81 minutes, but Phillips’s goal meant Arsene Wenger’s side fell three points behind Chelsea – with Manchester United able to go four points clear if they beat Bolton in the late game.
Eduardo da Silva returned to the scene of his horrific double leg break in February 2008. That day, 10-man Birmingham held Arsenal to a demoralising 2-2 draw, and it was seen as the beginning of the end of the Gunners’ title challenge.
The Croatian striker was an unused substitute this time, but Arsenal suffered similar frustration as another late equaliser threatened to derail their championship charge.
Arsenal enjoyed a fast start, with Tomas Rosicky cutting the ball back in the second minute from the left byline – a position from where Robert Pires enjoyed abundant success in his days at Highbury. Rosicky’s cross found not Thierry Henry – Pires’s preferred target – but Abou Diaby, whose shot hit Lee Bowyer and went behind for a corner.
The visitors dominated the early stages but too often promising moves were cut short by poor crosses from Theo Walcott and Sagna.
Alex McLeish’s side gradually gained a foothold, with James McFadden firing a long-range warning shot just wide then hitting a dipping effort that Almunia fielded adroitly.
Cameron Jerome then forced Almunia into a full-stretch save with a low shot from the edge of the box, while at the other end Walcott’s attempt to nip the ball past Joe Hart at the edge of the box was blocked.
There threatened to be another injury blow – less dramatic, yet no less significant – when Craig Gardner slid in for a tackle and caught Cesc Fabregas with his follow-through.
The Spaniard held his right ankle ominously, and limped around unhappily before undergoing treatment on the touchline.
Happily, he was able to carry on, and while there may yet be damage it did not seem to hamper the Arsenal captain.
The scare hardly improved the mood of Wenger, already fuming after referee Howard Webb rejected a penalty appeal by Gael Clichy, and later booked the left-back for an innocuous-looking challenge on Gardner.
Gardner, meanwhile, went unpunished for the tackle that hurt Fabregas; while he clearly took the ball, his follow-through was excessive and uncontrolled.
Birmingham gave as good as they got, and came agonisingly close to scoring just after the hour mark courtesy of their two centre-backs.
Roger Johnson met a lofted free-kick with a volley that looped over Almunia and came back off the far post, and the rebound fell to Scott Dann, who contrived to knee the ball over from a couple of yards.
The ball came quickly at Dann, but from his position right in front of goal he should still have scored.
The visitors picked up the tempo following the 68th-minute introduction of substitutes Nasri and Andrei Arshavin for Rosicky and the perpetually frustrating Walcott.
The pair combined when Arshavin pulled the ball back from the left for Nasri, whose shot lacked enough power to cause Hart any genuine concern.
Arsenal finally had the ball in the net on 76 minutes, when Diaby cracked a low shot past Hart, but referee Webb had already blown for a supposed foul by Fabregas at the edge of the box.
Relief finally came 10 minutes from time when Nasri collected the ball on the right touchline, carried it inside and struck a crisp low shot past Hart into the left corner from the edge of the box.
Wenger finally cracked a smile, but it proved premature as the late twist lengthened the odds on his Gunners ending their five-year trophy drought.