Sir Alex Ferguson criticised referee Lee Mason for missing three infringements in Birmingham City’s last-minute equaliser last night as Manchester United slipped to a seventh Premier League draw on the road this season. The Scot was right to feel aggrieved with Mason missing a handball, offside and foul on Rio Ferdinand in the build up.
In truth though, United should have put the game to bed well before Lee Bowyer’s controversial 90th minute equaliser at St Andrew’s. Once again, United’s failure to retain a lead cost Ferguson’s outfit points and a chance to move clear at the head of the Premier League table.
Indeed, was it not for the inconsistency of rivals, United could surely not sustain a league challenge with an away record that boasts just one domestic win all season.
“It was handball. There was [also] a foul on the centre-half. “He [Nicola Zigic] went right through the back of him [Ferdinand]. If the ref can’t see that, what chance have you got?” said Ferguson of Birmingham’s equalising goal.
“That’s where we expect - to get a referee who sees that. If you can’t see that, what chance have you got?”
Yet, United was nothing like as fluent against the Brummies as in the win over Sunderland on Boxing Day, despite Dimitar Berbatov’s 14th goal of an increasingly profitable season. The Bulgarian’s strike from the edge of the opposition area on the hour should have paved the way for a second United win of the Christmas programme. But as in early season games against Fulham and Everton, United gave up two potentially precious points at the death.
“I think it is terribly harsh,” added Ferguson.
“I think we outplayed them in the second half. We deserved to win the game, we were the better team. Maybe we should have finished them off. We just lacked a bit more care in our final pass and finishing.”
United began the match seeking to leapfrog Manchester City, whose win earlier in the day had taken the Blues top of the Premier League for the first time this season. Birmingham’s dogged perseverance – and luck at the death – means United regain top spot once again if only on goal difference from Roberto Mancini’s outfit.
In any case, the match was never likely to offer the Reds three easy points, with the Brummies having lost just once in the past 23 games at St Andrew’s.
Indeed, United struggled to break Birmingham down for much of the match, with former Red Ben Foster too rarely called into action. Chances came infrequently – Ryan Giggs almost scored with an attempted cross, while Berbatov’s neat exchange with Darron Gibson created the visitors’ only goal. Foster made just two further saves in a match that offered too little to footballing purists.
Perhaps most striking though was Wayne Rooney’s role – pushed to the left of United’s five-man midfield for much of the game, albeit with a license to support Berbatov in attack. The move limited Rooney’s attacking opportunities and his failure to hit the net means the former Evertonian is still yet to score a goal from open play this season.
United’s obvious lack of natural width also blunted the visitors’ edge. With Park Ji-Sung at the Asian Cup until February, Nani not fit for the trip to Birmingham and Antonio Valencia out until the Spring, Ferguson requires find additional options – quickly.
That Ferguson does not trust options already at the club suggests the Scot may dip into the market this January. Gabriel Obertan sat out the game on the bench, while £8 million Portuguese winger Bébé failed to make United’s matchday squad.
For all the obvious weaknesses in United’s squad Ferguson’s outfit remains in pole position heading into the third fixture of Christmas week.
“At this moment there are five or six teams who are all contesting that area at the top but if you get to new year and you are in that front position then you have a great chance,” added Ferguson.
Should United win at West Bromwich Albion tomorrow night, the Scot’s side will indeed be in that position with Arsenal fragile, City inconsistent and Chelsea in the worst run of form since the Roman Abramovich ear began.
The problem – points on the road are far from guaranteed.
Birmingham – 451 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Bowyer, Larsson (Hleb 69), Gardner, Ferguson, Beausejour (Zigic 82); Jerome (Phillips 85).
United – 451 – Van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Gibson (Hernandez 90), Anderson (Fletcher 73), Carrick, Giggs, Rooney; Berbatov.
Attendance – 28,242
Man of the Match – Berbatov
Possession: Birmingham 55% – 45% United
Attempts: 8 – 10
On Target: 3 – 4
Corners: 4 – 4
Fouls: 10 – 11