That Birmingham City got away with a 1-1 draw is perhaps as much a reflection of the spirit Alex McLeish has instilled in his side, as it is of the quality the FA possesses in terms of referees. Indeed, it is not often in the Premier League that one gets to see a game that is not marred by some sort of refereeing controversy. While refereeing blunders are not uncommon in football the world over, the Premier League somewhat specializes in refs who claim all the back page headlines more often than not.
Sir Alex Ferguson was scathing in his post match interview, but in doing so, the Scot shielded his side, which was at full strength against the relegation battlers, from criticism for letting the Birmingham side have so much space to attack United in the dying moments in the first place!
Here's a part by part review of a game which had the potential of letting United finally ending their dreaded away run this season.
Saturday's 4-4-2 turned into a 4-3-3, but it was a completely different version that the ones United fans have been accustomed to in the recent past. Indeed, it was a throwback to the days of Cristiano Ronaldo, with Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs on the flanks and Dimitar Berbatov playing as a central striker.
The only change from the weekend on the team-sheet was Darron Gibson in place of Park. The Irish international seemed to have vindicated Fergie's faith in him when just before the hour mark, Gibson collected a pass from midfield, drove up field and slid in a cool pass to Berbatov just within the box, with the Bulgarian, under pressure from two men, ending the play with a cool finish between the keeper and the near post, putting United 1-0 ahead, away from.
It wasn't the first time United had lead away from home this season. One goal was always going to be a nervous lead, especially given United's tendency of conceding late goals. For some time, United remained in complete control though. Rooney did well to get the ball into the box time and again, whether via crosses, or dribbling it along the left channel. Giggs' mazy runs meant United's front three were always fluid, all three interchanging places as the game progressed, but the game-killer never arrived. Instead, as soon as the clock read 80 minutes, Birmingham seemed to come alive, as if by magic. The home side dominated possession in the last ten minutes, and exerted pressure on the United defense.
The goal eventually did come, at the 90th minute. The manner of the goal though left much to be desired. As Ferguson later fumed, there was a foul at the half way mark, a handball by the Serbian striker Nikola Zigic which eventually fell to Lee Bowyer, who was marginally offside. That the referee and the linesmen failed to pick up on even one of these is hard to digest from simply a football point of view, let alone with the proverbial red tinted glasses on!
Ferguson went into the game with a formation that came as a bit of a surprise to many. With Park Ji Sung off to Qatar for the AFC Asian Cup, and Nani down with flu, Ferguson decided to switch his team around, with only one change in personnel from the weekend game against Sunderland.
It was indeed surprising that Ferguson didn't go in with a more attacking line up. Birmingham are a good team, but in the relegation zone, with not nearly the same amount of quality that United possess, especially with a fit and firing Oliveira Anderson. With Giggs on one flank, one has to wonder if the likes of Chicharito and Obertan would have had greater impact on the other instead of the largely invisible Darron Gibson.
McLeish set up his side to give United a proper go. Their midfield of Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer was largely outplayed, with United players often getting fouled or harassed off the ball in order to keep them in check. Nevertheless Sebastian Larsson and Jean Beausejour made good use of the space afforded to them by United's lack of any natural width, often sliding behind their full backs in order to supply the cross. Their final product lacked any sort of impact though, as Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand had a largely easy time dealing with them, except when the controversial goal arrived.
At the other end, Liam Ridgewell again gave a good account of himself, being the rock of the City defense, and playing his margins like a pro. Ben Foster too had an impressive outing, with some key saves, especially one curling effort off Ryan Giggs in the first half, from the right flank, which Foster was good enough to parry onto the inside of the far post, the ball eventually staying out.
Lee Mason had a largely disappointing game. The official failed to keep the game flowing, and branded out far too many yellows, a Ryan Giggs effort in the second half resulting in an especially baffling one. Apart from the disability to award advantages at crucial junctures in the game, Mason made sure that this game will only be remembered for the refereeing blunders rather than a pretty game of football.
The United team had a largely positive game. While they failed to convert their early game domination into a bigger score-line and get a shut-out win, a few of the players would be especially proud of how they did away from home against a competitive Birmingham side.
Berbatov was easily United's best player of the game, constantly creating chances from nothing. This is probably the most lively Berbatov has been in front of goal in all his two and a half years at the club. There was a mild danger of Berbatov turning into a bit of a home-game bully, but this goal and performance in general should certainly persuade the manager to consider the number 9 for the bigger games in future.
Anderson again kept the ball pinging about the field with great efficiency. He did seem a bit stifled for space with two more midfielders alongside him, not being able to burst through the middle in his usual fashion. Michael Carrick was a good foil, keeping the ball in United's control. Gibson's lack of positional awareness again let him down. He didn't see much of the ball at all, and his only contribution to the game apart from a good assist was a blazing shot which went well wide of the target.
The defense, Vidic and Rafael da Silva especially, would feel extremely hard done by the referee. They seemed to be heading towards yet another clean-sheet, with Edwin Van der Sar barely troubled throughout the night, until the fateful goal.
It was a disappointing result for the Red Devils' fans considering United were the better team for 90% of the game. They were superior in all departments, and even got the goal that should have been enough to see them through.
The draw continues United's dreaded run of just one away win in eight attempts, the rest all resulting in draws. Of course Arsenal's failure to claim all three points softened the blow, and the fact that United go in to 2011 as table toppers is extremely promising.
The title could still go either way, but United seldom throw away the title from a position of strength in January. Ferguson though, will continue to use the memories of 1998 to spur his team on for their first league title since the departure of Ronaldo.