Manchester City rocked by spot-on Gardner
Manchester City’s title challenge was left hanging by a thread after Craig Gardner struck late on to earn Birmingham a 2-2 draw at St Andrew’s which boosted their survival hopes on Wednesday.
Nikola Zigic had cancelled out Carlos Tevez’s early opener before the visitors, who saw Micah Richards carried off on a stretcher, regained the lead with a brilliant free-kick from Aleksandar Kolarov shortly before half-time.
Having themselves been denied a strong penalty claim, City then lost the lead for a second time when Patrick Vieira fouled Kevin Phillips inside the area and Gardner drove home the resulting penalty with 13 minutes remaining.
For Roberto Mancini’s team, Manchester United’s lead at the top now looks insurmountable with the table-toppers eight points clear with a game in hand, while, for Alex McLeish’s team it was a precious point in their battle to beat the drop.
McLeish failed to find a place in his 18-man squad for Obafemi Martins, the Nigeria international on loan from Russian side Rubin Kazan, while fellow new recruit Curtis Davies, who made the far shorter trip across the city from neighbours Aston Villa, had to settle for a place on the bench.
But the Birmingham manager’s pre-match strategy was soon in tatters as City took a fourth-minute lead when Tevez finished the move he started, cleverly exchanging play with David Silva before squeezing a low shot inside the left post from a tight angle.
However, having trailed to both West Ham and Coventry in the last week before coming back to win, the home side maintained their composure and had a fine opportunity to level in the 14th minute when David Bentley whipped in one of his trademark crosses from the right only for the unmarked Cameron Jerome to head disappointingly wide.
Joe Hart, given a warm reception from the home crowd on his return to St Andrew’s, was tested two minutes later when he was forced to tip over Zigic’s dipping volley following a poor clearance the visitors.
The towering 6 foot 8 inc Serbia international got the better of Hart in the 23rd minute, however, when he slid in to divert Bentley’s low free-kick through the England keeper’s legs.
There was a lengthy delay for treatment to Richards after he was involved in an aerial collision with team mate Nigel De Jong.
Richards eventually left the field in a neck brace and on a stretcher before being taken to hospital but, according to club officials, his injuries were not as bad as first feared.
To their credit, City remained undeterred by the setback and they took the lead for a second time in the 41st minute via a wonder-strike from Kolarov who expertly curled a 25-yard free-kick inside Ben Foster’s left post after Gardner had fouled Edin Dzeko.
Seven minutes of added time were played before referee Kevin Friend blew for half-time and Vieira came on in place of De Jong, still clearly feeling the effects of his clash with Richards.
McLeish’s side re-emerged looking fired up and they threatened early on via Bentley with a long-range effort which flashed over the crossbar.
Birmingham central defenders Martin Jiranek and Roger Johnson were then both left to rue missed chances within seconds of one another, the latter in particular with a header at the back post.
City could count themselves unfortunate midway through the second half, however, when a James Milner cross inside the box appeared to catch Stephen Carr’s hand.
It became even more significant when Blues were handed a 77th-minute penalty when Vieira bodychecked substitute Phillips, which Gardner duly converted with a rising strike into the roof of the net to steal a point.
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