Manchester United continued their awful away form, as they dropped another two points in the 1-1 draw with Birmingham City at St. Andrew’s.
Dimitar Berbatov scored his eighth goal in three games, but it was cancelled out by a very controversial, late equalizer by Lee Bowyer, which saw Birmingham steal a point against United.
In spite of the disappointing result, United still remains top of the Barclays Premier League, but they are now level with Manchester City on 38 points – having played two less matches.
With Ji-Sung Park on his way to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup and Nani out with a reported hip injury, Sir Alex Ferguson was forced shuffle his pack, and it gave Darron Gibson a chance to grab his first start of the season.
The Irish midfielder will partner Michael Carrick in the bottom part of United’s center of the midfield triangle with Anderson occupying the role just ahead of them being flanked by Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney.
Seven goals in his last two league games gives a chance for Dimitar Berbatov to be the link-up man in the United attack with Giggs and Rooney both encourage to get forward to join when possible.
Without any real surprise, Alex McLeish went with a very defensive-minded formation himself with a 4-5-1 in attempts to hold off a very potent United attack against Ben Foster.
The first chance of the match came in the first two minutes, and it was for the home side, with Sebastian Larsson playing a teasing cross, which Cameron Jerome met with his head, but it went well over the target from close range.
United was struggling to get a hold of the ball in the early going as they were trying to get used to the new-look formation.
United’s first shot came in the 8th minute, but Rooney did not warm the palms of Foster as his effort bent away from goal and out for a goal kick.
Rooney was instructed to operate on the left-hand side of the midfield, and his desire showed him trackback and cut out a very dangerous ball that could have led to something for Birmingham.
After some clever footwork by Berbatov, the ball worked its way out to Rooney on the left, and against the aging Stephen Carr, he was given the chance to cut in on his favored right foot, but his curling effort went straight into Foster’s midriff.
United started pinging the ball around with more confidence, and Carrick smashed a delight pass to Rooney in acres of space in the middle, but with better options available, his blast ended up in the home supporters.
Following a good move down the right-hand flank, Giggs mishit his a cross, which ended up being more of a shot and Foster did well to touch on to the inside and off the far post.
Carrick then barged into Jerome from behind, and gave the Blues a free-kick on the edge of the United area, which was thankfully sent over the junction and bar by Larsson.
The game always had the chance to boil over, and tempers started to rise a little bit.
After being fouled, Anderson squared up to the often-troubled Barry Ferguson, and then Craig Gardner got involved and then him and the Brazilian traded shoves, which led to both of them working their way into Lee Mason’s book.
Then within two minutes, the ever fiery, Lee Bowyer, used his studs to stamp on Gibson’s ankle.
From the free-kick, Giggs got the ball on the right and cut in on his left, but again the shot was directly at Foster.
The fourth yellow card in a matter of minutes was shown to Nemanja Vidic for a dangerous, but needed tackle to stop the driving run from Jerome.
The game started to edge towards Birmingham’s favor, and after some good pressure, Gardner drove at the United defense and hit a very good left-footed drive that went a couple of yards wide of Edwin van der Sar’s right-post.
United had a good chance to create something concrete down the right-hand side, but after making a very good 50-yard run, Rafael overhit his pass to Berbatov and it rolled behind for a goal kick.
Some very good football was then played by Birmingham with Larsson picking out Bowyer, but his expertly laid off pass was blasted over by Gardner.
The half-time whistle came from Mason, and it was clear that United needed to have more options on the wings, so it would not come as a surprise if it was not too long before one of the central midfielders were withdrawn in favor of Gabriel Obertan.
United started the half with the intent to get all three points from the match, but first half-chance of the second 45 came from Birmingham as Larsson tried to squeak in a header from an acute angle.
A deflected long-range shot from Bowyer earned Birmingham corner, and the Blues almost found the back of the net from it as well as the ball worked its way to Gardner but his left-footed shot from six-yards out went straight to van der Sar.
Then from their own corner, Rooney was unable to get over the ball and his header went harmlessly over the Brum bar.
When frustration was looking to settle in, United finally broke the deadlock.
The ball came to Berbatov and he heeled to Gibson, who then had acres of space to run into, and then he slid the ball to the Bulgarian, who stroked it first time into the near post corner of the net.
Then three minutes later, Berbatov was within inches of scoring his and United’s second.
Berbatov danced around a couple of Birmingham defenders, and with just a glimpse of their goal, he poked a shot that had Foster well beaten, but it could not beat the post.
After making a bombarding run forward, Rafael was asked to make a long 100+ yard backtracking run to sniff out a cross field ball by Larsson to Jean Beausejour, and the young right-back did it ever-so well.
United strung more than 30 straight passes together without , which ended up with Anderson having a go on his left foot, but the shot tailed away from the target.
McLeish then opted to make the first change of the match bringing for Arsenal midfielder, Alexander Hleb, on for the other former Gunner youngster, Larsson, which should give the home side more possession in the middle of the park.
With no option for a left-back on the bench, the hearts of the United supporters were in their mouths when Patrice Evra went down injured with a foot injury after getting incidentally kicked.
With an eye on the yellow card he picked up earlier in the match, Ferguson withdrew Anderson in favor of Darren Fletcher.
Scott Dann picked up the third yellow card for Birmingham, when he was completely outfoxed by Berbatov with a clever chip, so he cynically brought him down.
With his path to goal closed down, Rooney spotted a wide open Gibson, but the usually lethal shooter fired terribly wide of the target from the top of the area.
As they have been tending to do this season, United began drop back into their defensive shell, which enabled Birmingham to boss the possession for the last 10 minutes.
Jerome played a lofted pass over the top of the Hleb, and their were half shouts from the home supporters for a penalty, but Mason used common sense and experience to wave off the half-hearted appeals.
To add some abnormal height to their attack, McLeish threw on Nikola Zigic for Beausejour.
United earned a corner, and Vidic rose well, and uncontested, in the middle of the Birmingham penalty box, but Foster did well to palm it over the top for another corner, which the big Serb got a wayward header on as well.
McLeish made his final change hauling off Jerome in favor of the man who has been known to score late goals, Kevin Phillips.
Giggs sprung the ball to Gibson and with a two-v-one with him and Berbatov against Dann, the midfielder’s cross was well cut out by the center-back, and Birmingham threw another wave forward to find an equalizer.
The warning signs were ignored, and United was pegged back.
A handball by Zigic made its way to Bowyer who looked to be in a clear offside position, but the referee and his assistant waved away the fierce appeals.
No matter if it was a good goal or not, Manchester United will definitely see this as an opportunity missed because they dropped points from being in front against Birmingham City.
Rafael did well aiding the United attack without a wide player available, and did even better defending.
E. van der Sar – 7; Rafael – 8, R. Ferdinand – 7, N. Vidic – 7, P. Evra – ; D. Gibson – 6 (J. Hernandez – X), M. Carrick – 7, Anderson – 6 (D. Fletcher – 6), R. Giggs – 7, W. Rooney – 6; D. Berbatov – 7
D. Berbatov (58′)
Shots (On Target): 14 (4)
Fouls Conceded (Suffered): 11 (11)
Bookings: Anderson, N. Vidic