Carling Cup – Gardner fires Birmingham into final

Craig Gardner‘s extra-time winner booked Birmingham City‘s place in next month’s Carling Cup final against Arsenal as they defeated West Ham 3-1 at St Andrew’s and 4-3 on aggregate.

A wonder strike from Carlton Cole had given West Ham the lead in a first half that the visitors shaded, but the half-time introduction of Nikola Zigic for Birmingham caused the Londoners problems.

The Serbian’s knockdown found Lee Bowyer in the 59th minute, and the midfielder lashed the loose ball in. The Blues then levelled the tie when Roger Johnson headed home from Sebastian Larsson‘s 79th minute corner.

West Ham held on for extra-time, surviving two efforts from Gardner that hit the woodwork.

But Gardner was not to be denied four minutes into the additional period, when he fired in from 20 yards after West Ham substitute Kieron Dyer was dispossessed by Stephen Carr.

Despite an encouraging start for Birmingham, who controlled possession in the early stages, it was West Ham who looked the more likely to score as Mark Noble orchestrated several incisive counter attacks.

His defence-splitting through ball in the 10th minute found Zavon Hines in space on the right, but his shot was saved low by Ben Foster.

Noble was at the centre of another West Ham counter-attack, this time slipping a perfectly-weighted ball through to Cole, whose cross into the six-yard box was headed over his own crossbar by Liam Ridgewell as Jonathan Spector lurked.

Cole was the difference throughout the first half and his strike just after the half-hour mark was worthy of winning any semi-final.

The former Chelsea man capitalised on a misunderstanding in the Birmingham midfield before unleashing an unstoppable effort into the top corner from at least 25 yards out.

It was no less than Cole’s first-half performance deserved, but it was Hines – who was also lively throughout – who nearly doubled the visitors lead just before half-time.

Noble whipped in a free-kick from the left and, with his back to goal, Hines hooked the ball over his own head and against the outside of the post, with Foster stranded.

It would have been harsh on Birmingham had that well-improvised effort by Hines doubled West Ham’s lead before half-time, but the hosts suffered from an inability to produce a quality final ball to service their attackers Cameron Jerome and Matt Derbyshire.

Derbyshire was replaced at half-time by Zigic, and it was a substitution that changed the game.

Birmingham, who were so toothless in the first half, altered their tactics after his introduction – and the Serbian was an immediate nuisance.

Barely five minutes into the second half, a long ball was played to Zigic, who knocked it down for Gardner, who rattled the inside of the post with a stinging shot from the edge of the box. Robert Green was beaten as the ball flashed back across the face of his goal.

West Ham survived a legitimate penalty claim when the ball looped into the air and rolled down Wayne Bridge’s arm. The Hammers survived that but Birmingham were not denied the lead a minute later.

A corner was whipped in from the right by Larsson towards Zigic, and the ball dropped to Bowyer who lashed in a venomous effort with his left foot – and will now make manager Alex McLeish consider offering Zigic a starting place at Wembley.

Green kept West Ham in the tie on numerous occasions and his save from Barry Ferguson’s low drive was as good as any, having not seen it until late.

But Birmingham finally levelled the tie on aggregate courtesy of Johnson, who got ahead of his marker at the near post to head in – to a delirious reaction from the home crowd.

Gardner could have won it in injury time as another low drive from 20 yards found the post after Green expertly palmed it onto the post.

West Ham were relieved to make extra-time, ragged from the second half onslaught from McLeish’s side, but they found themselves behind just four minutes into the additional period.

Cole, Dyer and Scott Parker missed chances as a tired West Ham toiled for a goal that would have taken them into the final.

But Birmingham held on for a win that was greeted with exuberant celebrations inside a packed St Andrew’s, despite the crowd trouble that marred the game before kick-off.

Birmingham play Arsenal in the final at Wembley on February 27.

Michael Da Silva / Eurosport

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