They lead on goal difference over Manchester City, with two games in hand, because of an equaliser by Birmingham's Lee Bowyer in the 89th minute. Sir Alex Ferguson expressed disbelief as much as anger over the decision by the referee, Lee Mason.
The controversy surrounded a challenge by the Birmingham substitute Nikola Zigic on Rio Ferdinand before the ball broke for Bowyer to score. "It was handball and a foul on the centre-half," the United manager said. "He went straight through him. If the referee can't see that what chance have you got? In a game of that importance you expect to have a referee who can see that. I have no complaints with my team. They fought hard, they worked hard after a two-day rest. They ran their socks off to get a result and it's hard on them."
His opposite number tacitly conceded that a lapse by the officials had spared his side. "We got a bit of luck," Alex McLeish said, "but with all the bad luck we've had I think we deserved it." He also suggested that Zigic's handling of the ball was inadvertent.
United still have just one away win in the league this season, at Stoke City, in October. "I think it's terribly harsh," Ferguson said. "We outplayed them. We didn't deserve that [equaliser]. It's a difficult place to come to. Everyone who comes here has a difficult game.
"We were the better team and maybe should have finished them off after we went 1-0 up. A number of times we counterattacked against them and just needed a bit more care in our finishing pass or finishing shot."
Ferguson had put the accent on continuity by making a single change from the victory over Sunderland two days earlier, with Darron Gibson coming in for Park ji-sung, but the line-up may have shown signs of weariness at the late Birmingham goal. The manager remains very optimistic about the prospects of regaining the title: "If you get to the new year and you are in the front position you have a good chance then."
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