By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are edging ever closer to that unbeaten Premiership season and, after this drab goalless draw with Birmingham, the equation is now 35 gone, three to go.
Following the tumultuous title-winning celebrations at White Hart Lane last week, Arsène Wenger's side found it hard to lift themselves for this lunchtime kick-off at Highbury.
They knocked the ball around crisply and with the confidence you might expect of champions, but they never really broke down the blue baracade Birmingham built at the back.
The lively Jose Antonio Reyes flashed a volley wide in the first half and Thierry Henry nearly squeezed home a quickly-taken free kick just before the hour. But that was about it.
It was hardly inspiring stuff. But then, given that Arsenal have been doing precisely that all season, they can be wholeheartedly forgiven.
Having secured the title, Wenger had targeted a campaign without a blemish of defeat. In that sense at least it was "job done" today.
Anyone arriving at a drizzly, grey Highbury this morning might have noticed two new banners on the North Bank. Joining "WHL '71" and "Anfield '89" were "Old Trafford '02" and "WHL '04". The last of these had only been earned on Sunday.
There was an element of the "party atmosphere" Wenger had predicted for this game. Playing "We are the Champions" just before kick-off only added to the mood of celebration.
But the manager still wants to match what Preston's "Invincibles" did in 1888-89. Perhaps with that in mind, he rotated a couple of his squad from the draw at White Hart Lane.
Reyes and Freddie Ljungberg started so Ray Parlour and Robert Pires dropped to bench. Birmingham knew they would be without suspended keeper Maik Taylor but they had hoped top-scorer Mikael Forssell would play despite a knee injury. He did not.
Arsenal were quietly superior in the opening stages. They pushed the visitors back but the closest they came to scoring was when Reyes flashed a volley just wide of the post from Dennis Bergkamp's cross.
The Spaniard was looking lively but Birmingham's defence were keeping a tight rein in him. It was left to Vieira to drive them forward. The captain, so often the inspiration this season, won a free-kick 25 yards when Kenny Cunningham blocked his path. Henry took it but sent his shot over the bar.
Soon afterwards, Robbie Savage had a free-kick from a similar distance at the other end charged down by Reyes and Henry then blazed over.
But it still was pretty drab fare.
Arsenal had been an irresistible force up front all season. Although they had not quiet hit those heights, they were knocking the ball around satisfactorily. It is just that Birmingham's defence were looking like an immoveable object today.
Perhaps a little bit of cage-rattling was needed.
The home side did come out with more purpose and penetration after the interval.
After 12 minutes, Henry was fouled just outside the area and then fired wide with the quickly taken free-kick. It was so nearly reminiscent of the one he scored at Villa Park when Arsenal played the second city's other side on January 18.
They were starting to pepper the Birmingham area with crosses; you hoped that just one would find the head of an Arsenal player. However former Highbury favourite Matthew Upson was doing much to make sure that did not happen.
But Birmingham soon reminded the home side that, even minus Forssell they could still be dangerous. Stephen Clemence tested Jens Lehmann with a low skidding shot and then Stan Lazaridis pulled a cross back for Clinton Morrison but the former Crystal Palace striker failed to control the ball eight yards out with the ball at his mercy.
Changes were predictable. Pires replaced Ljungberg with just over 20 minutes left, Jeremie Aliadiere came on soon afterwards.
Arsenal continued to pressurise but without reward. In the dying minutes, Cunningham nodded away Bergkamp's free-kick just before it reached the onrushing Arsenal strikers at the far post. The same defender then got a flick to Henry's cut back from the byline.
Keown, who needs to play in every remaining game to get a Premiership winner's medal, replaced Bergkamp in injury time and slotted into an unaccustomed midfield role.
That, and maintaining the unbeaten record, were the achievements of the day.
|Gilberto plays the ball past Clemence||Ljungberg brings the ball forward|
|Reyes keeps an eye on Tebily||Keown shares a joke with Wenger|
|Martin finally gets into the action||The Bergkamp family send their message out|
© Arsenal Broadband Limited 2004