Bowyer strike leaves Fergie furious
Man United 1
What a compelling title race this is. Manchester United still went ahead of one City in blue but they were held by another last night.
United lead the Premier League from Manchester City on goal difference, albeit with two games in hand, but they couldn't keep Birmingham City at bay before a baying home public at St Andrew's.
The biters were bit. So often United have plundered late goals but here it was a team assembled by Alex McLeish, one of Alex Ferguson's former charges. Leading through Dimitar Berbatov's eighth goal in three Premier League games, United seemed to be heading towards victory when Lee Bowyer struck late on, deserved reward for his energetic endeavour all evening.
United will be furious, partly because Nikola Zigic appeared to foul Rio Ferdinand in the build-up to the equaliser, partly because it looked like a handball from the Serbian and partly because Bowyer might have been offside. As if conceding a last-minute equaliser wouldn't make Ferguson angry enough.
"I think the result is terribly harsh, we outplayed them second half and we didn't deserve that," a furious Ferguson said afterwards. "Handball and foul for their goal and if the referee can't see that what chance have you got?"
Birmingham, though, equally had cause for complaint after a poor challenge by Ryan Giggs a few minutes earlier that miraculously escaped punishment from Lee Mason.
United also need Wayne Rooney to refind his shooting boots. Chasing his first goal for United in open play since scoring against Bayern Munich on March 30, Rooney had started on the left as Ferguson deployed a 4-2-3-1 system headed by Berbatov with Giggs patrolling the right.
Part of Rooney's responsibilities involved tracking back to deal with Stephen Carr's breaks such as when the Birmingham right-back made a typical foray in the 10th minute. Rooney stifled that run.
Derided by the Birmingham fans, Rooney sought to cut in from the flank, testing Ben Foster with a couple of low shots. The former United 'keeper also had to deal with a cross-shot from Giggs, which he did athletically, stretching out a fingertip to divert the ball on to the post.
United enjoyed the ball's company for long periods of the first half, showing all their European experience by keeping possession, pushing and probing. Anderson looked to break through the middle, freed from defensive duties by the holding pair of Michael Carrick and Ireland's Darron Gibson who showed occasional class.
Anderson, who was struggling to elude Barry Ferguson, lost his composure midway through the half, clashing with his marker, the pair bumping chests like toddlers squabbling over the last Rusk. Craig Gardner added to the folly festival by pushing Anderson, who reacted by shoving the Birmingham midfielder. Mason handled the nonsense well, issuing cautions to Anderson and Gardner.
The game turned scrappy, Bowyer hitting Gibson with a nasty challenge and United, previously calm, were now slightly rattled.
Nemanja Vidic panicked when Cameron Jerome burst through, felling the Birmingham striker with an outstretched boot. Fortunately for Vidic, Rio Ferdinand was covering and the United captain escaped with only a yellow.
Colours dominated. The attention was briefly distracted by the sight of Gabriel Obertan warming up in a particularly natty hat resembling a tea-cosy borrowed from Dennis the Menace.
The surreal sights continued at the break with Frank Worthington walking on to the pitch and holding up the Ryder Cup.
Before Berbatov's moment of class, Birmingham started the second half the stronger and Gardner should have scored when a loose ball fell to him, but he sliced his volley straight at Edwin van der Sar. United came back, Rooney heading Giggs' delivery over.
But then came the Berbatov show. Just before the hour-mark, the Bulgarian rolled the ball with the most elegant of back-heels into the path of Gibson, who tore down the inside-right channel. When Berbatov followed into the box, Gibson returned the ball and United's No 9 scored with a low shot that beat Foster at the near post.United's substantial support, all-singing, all-standing, were loving it.
They had already been treated to signs of Berbatov's sumptuous technique, a flick over Ferguson here, a turn away from Liam Ridgewell, but this really hurt Birmingham. For Gibson, this was an important contribution as he had hitherto looked a below-par understudy for Ji-sung Park.
The lead seized, United chased hungrily a second. Rooney began moving all over the pitch, hunting that elusive goal but never forgetting his team duties. Birmingham seemed crushed and Sebastian Larsson reacted angrily to his substitution, throwing away the proffered tracksuit top.
Berbatov continued to catch the eye, lifting the ball over Scott Dann and attempting to break into space, but the centre-half baulked him. As the clock ticked down, Birmingham sought to raise their game. Bowyer drove down the left and was clattered by a reckless challenge by Giggs, who somehow escaped a caution from Mason. If it had been Bowyer on Giggs, the outcome would surely have been different. Bowyer, to his credit, didn't complain, simply getting on with the game.
With Birmingham committed to attack, United inevitably found space, forcing a corner which Giggs curled into the box. Vidic met it powerfully and only Foster's excellent reflexes rescued Birmingham.
But then came Bowyer and legitimate complaints from United as they surrendered two more late points. (© Daily Telegraph, London)