manchester united missed out on the chance to pinch top spot from Chelsea after they could only manage a 1-1 draw against Birmingham City at St Andrews.
The hosts had taken the lead completely against the run of play through Cameron Jerome six minutes before half-time, but a Scott Dann own goal drew manchester united level just after the hour-mark.
Despite creating a host of first half chances, the Reds failed to test Joe Hart after the break. Tomasz Kuszczak, on the other hand, was forced to make a string of fine saves as manchester united struggled to hit top gear.
Sir Alex made seven changes to the side that lost out to Leeds manchester united in the FA Cup – the 100th successive game he’d tinkered with his starting eleven – with Paul Scholes, Rafael, Patrice Evra, Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Ji-sung Park all returning. A niggling knee injury ruled Dimitar Berbatov out of the gane.
The game was one of only two Barclays Premier League clashes that had survived the big freeze – Arsenal’s match with Everton at the Emirates was the other – but both sets of players and fans still had bitterly cold conditions to contend with, indeed the temperature gage read -3 at kick-off.
It was manchester united’s first outing since their shock Cup exit, and with Chelsea’s trip to Hull called off it was a chance to regain control at the top of the table. The Reds set about getting back on track straight away with Darren Fletcher almost giving the visitors the perfect start. Having seen his initial corner cleared, Antonio Valencia weaved his way into the area, and while his attempted cross was blocked, it dropped to Fletcher just inside the box whose fizzing effort was deflected wide by Sebastian Larsson.
It was somewhat scrappy thereafter with manchester united struggling to find that killer pass in the final third. Wayne Rooney almost found it on 24 minutes after capitalising on Stephen Carr’s failure to deal with a long punt forward. But his curling cross towards the far post, where Valencia was waiting, was well cleared by James McFadden who had got back to cover.
60 seconds later the roles were reversed with Valencia dinking a lovely pass towards Rooney which put the striker through on goal. Unfortunately Joe Hart, one of the league’s in-form stoppers, stood tall and cleared with his legs. Rooney headed just wide soon after as manchester united began to turn the screw.
Fletcher released Park on 32 minutes but Carr did enough to put the Korean off balance and the chance was gone.
Carrick saw successive shots well blocked by Birmingham’s resolute defence as the half neared its conclusion, while Hart was on hand to claim the midfielder’s looped effort soon after.
Birmingham, who had seen very little of the ball up that point, made their first venture into the opposition box on 38 minutes as Cameron Jerome was finally afforded some service. The striker cleverly worked space, but Scholes stole in to block his close range effort. From the resulting corner, Birmingham unbelievably took the lead.
McFadden’s ball in eventually fell to Lee Bowyer who headed it back into the danger area. It rebounded back off Jonny Evans and into the path of Jerome who had the simple task of slotting home from three yards out. It was extremely harsh on the Reds who had totally dominated the opening period.
Things almost got worse at the start of the second half when a Birmingham corner was only half-cleared. Christian Benitez chested down the loose ball before turning and striking it goalwards. Thankfully it was straight at Kuszczak who, despite knowing little about it, parried clear.
As the snow began to fall, so too did manchester united’s performance level and concentration. Stray passes increased, while there was a real a lack of penetration in attack for the Reds with Rooney becoming more and more isolated up front.
But just as Birmingham had been hugely fortunate to take the lead, the Reds were afforded a stroke of good fortune just after the hour-mark when Scott Dann turned the ball into his own net.
Following some penalty-box pinball, the ball eventually dropped to Patrice Evra who lashed a low drive goalwards which Dann could only divert past Hart. As the Reds celebrated, the linesman on the right touchline kept his flag raised to signal offside against Wayne Rooney. But thankfully referee Mark Clattenburg overturned the decision after consulting with his assistant and replays showed Rooney was clearly onside as Evra struck his shot.
Having struggled to get going since the break, you hoped the equaliser would spur manchester united into action, but it was Birmingham who almost found the net again. Carr found Benitez in the box who turned brilliantly away from both Evans and Scholes,but his low shot was well saved by Kuszczak.
Mame Biram Diouf entered the fray for his manchester united debut, joining fellow substitute Ryan Giggs in trying to help the Reds turn one point into three. manchester united’s cause was made all the more difficult, however, six minutes from time when Fletcher was harshly given his marching orders after collecting his second yellow card for a tame trip on Jerome.
Birmingham almost nicked it with a powerful shot from Roger Johnson, but Kuszczak yet again blocked well.
Despite six minutes of added time, manchester united couldn’t find a winner. The result edged the Reds a point closer to Chelsea, but it still felt like a missed opportunity.