Arsenal v Birmingham: Bad blood, bad tackles and Eduardo

The Carling Cup final could be a grudge match at Wembley

THERE has been a fair amount of animosity between Arsenal and Birmingham in recent seasons, most of which boils down to a game between the two almost exactly three years ago.

Only three minutes had elapsed on a chilly day at St Andrew’s when the City defender Martin Taylor caught Arsenal striker Eduardo with a heavy, late tackle.

It was immediately clear that the Croatia international was seriously injured. A number of Arsenal players including Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb, who will face the Gunners on Sunday, recoiled at the sight of the damage to the Brazilian-born striker’s leg.

The images from that day in February 2008 are still all too familiar to most football fans. Eduardo’s grotesquely mangled left ankle was one of the most shocking injuries the game has ever seen.

Eduardo was out of the game for a year and, undeniably, his Arsenal career never really recovered. He was sold to Shakhtar Donetsk last summer.

For Arsenal the day was to prove an infamous one – Gael Clichy conceded an injury-time penalty, William Gallas, at that time the Gunners’ captain, lost his head. After James McFadden had scored from the spot to ensure a 2-2 draw Arsenal lost momentum in a title race in which they had looked to be in control.

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The fallout as far as the relationship between the two clubs is concerned, is that bad blood has remained in this fixture since that day. Alex McLeish, as you would expect him to do, defended Taylor – who was shown a straight red card – afterwards with the now well-versed line that he ‘was not that kind of player’.

Arsene Wenger was as angry as many have ever seen him, and called for Taylor to be ‘banned for life’ for the tackle, a comment he swiftly retracted the following morning.

However, the damage was done. Although Birmingham were relegated and the sides did not meet again for 18 months, when they came to the Emirates Eduardo’s name was on many lips.

A challenge from Blues defender Liam Ridgewell that day caused Theo Walcott to leave the field with a knee injury that was to keep him out for two months. Wenger was not impressed.

“It was a cut-through tackle, without any restriction. It was meant to impress. It looked quick and hard from outside – I don’t know if he didn’t want to play the ball.”

At St Andrew’s the following March Wenger was angered again by Birmingham’s tactics, but even more by another injury-time equaliser from Kevin Phillips that secured a 1-1 draw. A result that all but ended Arsenal’s title hopes.

In this season’s meeting at the Emirates, Jack Wilshere was sent off in the last minute for an x-rated challenge on Nikola Zigic, and afterwards McLeish let his feelings be known saying Arsenal “should have ended the game with seven players.”

“Nasri should have been sent off, Eboue had the scissor challenge on Ridgewell. Did you see Murphy get punched in the face in the last minute? We took him off with a cut eye.

“Jack Wilshere’s was a deserved red. He’s not a dirty player but even the best can mistime tackles. Zigic is lucky. He could have had his leg shattered like Eduardo.

“Martin Taylor still gets vilified for that. People are still going to interview Eduardo about that tackle. It’s scandalous. Will people be interviewing Jack Wilshere in a year about his tackle?

“I don’t want to get into a war of words with Arsene, but it was a bad tackle and he should be drawing a line under the Taylor one because he’s not a dirty player, either.”

“Jack made one tackle,’ said an exasperated Wenger afterwards. “Do you want me to show you some tackles on my players? You have to make a difference between an accidental red card and a team who tries to kick you from the first to the last minute.

“No matter what we do, it is wrong. If we get kicked and do not reply, people say we are too soft.”

Arsenal won 3-0 at St Andrew’s on New Year’s Day but again the game was not without incident. Roger Johnson was only cautioned for an x-rated tackle on Cesc Fabregas, while Robin van Persie appeared to dive for a free-kick for Arsenal’s first goal and get away with a handball in his own area.

“There’s a fine line [between winning and losing], no doubt,” said McLeish afterwards. “Decisions change games. The handball, how did he [referee Peter Walton] never see that? He [Van Persie] played it with his arm, it didn’t just hit it.”

McLeish and Wenger are chalk and cheese, but both are winners, the Scotsman having won trophies north of the border as a player with Aberdeen and, more recently, as manager of Rangers.

He knows all about cup finals and how they work, and will be more than happy for his players to ‘get at’ Arsenal again on Sunday. How Wenger’s players react to that physical challenge could be the decisive factor in the final.