A case of blues for ferguson as crown slips again

United look fading force as chasing pack continue to threaten big guns

Peter Lansley

ALEX McLeish and his Birmingham City players were left shivering in the tunnel on Saturday night while MUTV interviews took place in the warm corridors of St Andrews.

However, after the champions' media outlet were told where to go, there is a growing sense that the elite will not be allowed to have it all their own way for much longer.

The arrogance that allows a visiting club to block out their hosts from their own hearthside is reflected by a manager who continues to consider himself above the law. While Alex Ferguson ignores the Premier League's stipulation that he should meet all media after matches, yet publicly attacks referees game after game, perhaps it is unsurprising that United believe that they can ride their lull with impunity.

Chelsea, their game against Hull City frozen off, were the weekend's big winners as they stayed top of the Premier League table with both their main rivals dropping points, Arsenal salvaging a 2-2 draw with Everton. United have now only won one of their past four games.

Not that being held by this record-breaking Birmingham side should be denigrated, as Chelsea and Liverpool would vouch, but after the FA Cup defeat by Leeds United, United's inability to work a way past a team honed in the Coca-Cola Championship smacks of a fading force lacking leaders.

McLeish, eventually emerging after being obliged to wait to share his wine with his former mentor, paid tribute to the teams that are closing in upon the elite.

With Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa strengthening their challenge, the Birmingham manager suggested that the "big four" has been extended to a significant seven and Ferguson's acceptance of this draw as a good point reflected the diminishing gap between the best and the rest.

Life without Cristiano Ronaldo gets no easier. With Dimitar Berbatov, hardly in the flush of finest form, set to go under the knife this week, Michael Owen remained on the bench, not trusted to partner Wayne Rooney, who was left to produce a Herculean effort as a lone striker. No one's craft matches his graft.

As Tomasz Kuszczak said, more teams are beating one another this season. "The league is very close," Edwin van der Sar's deputy in the United goal said. "Everyone will drop points. It's not as simple as it was a few years ago." But in front of him, with Nemanja Vidic's future in question and Rio Ferdinand's fitness even more debatable, Wes Brown and Jonny Evans do not represent the defensive bedrock of a title-winning team.

In the least physical sense of the phrase, they were beaten up by Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez. The Birmingham front men hassled them all match and, after United had dominated the opening 38 minutes, Joe Hart continuing his excellent form by denying Rooney, the home side scored from their first attacking assault.

Jerome, having earned a corner with a deflected shot, converted at the second attempt after Evans stayed in to play him onside as Lee Bowyer returned the ball into the six-yard box. Had Benitez released Jerome, when they were two on one, or Jerome located his strike partner when clear early in the second half, Birmingham would have been two up before a controversial equaliser.


The home side, as usual, were throwing bodies in the line of fire when the ball ricocheted out to Patrice Evra. When he fired in a low cross-shot, Scott Dann, conscious that he could not allow the ball to fly behind him to where Rooney was lurking, deflected the ball past Hart.

Stephen Child, the assistant referee, flagged for a marginal, if erroneous, offside against Rooney. Mark Clattenburg, the referee, overruled him.

"It's one of those where you've got to go for it and try to (clear) because otherwise someone behind you taps it in," Dann said. "If I'd let it go and Rooney put it in, he would have been given offside.

"It's unfortunate for us that the goal stands, because other than that, I don't think we would've conceded."

Darren Fletcher, having continuously harangued Clattenburg, was sent off for a soft yellow card when tripping Jerome late on. But he could have been dismissed for hacking into Lee Bowyer from behind when earning his first caution. So he, like United, should have few complaints.

The United squad are currently in warmer climes at present, having jetted out to Doha, Qatar for a training camp this week.

© The Times, London