IT'S going to be a long hard winter for United - and it has nothing to do with the big freeze gripping Britain. Soon after British summer time ended in October the champions were unluckily beaten at Chelsea, but they comforted themselves with a winter schedule that had `unbeaten run' written all over it. From the Stamford Bridge loss, through December to the end of January and the visit to the Emirates to face Arsenal, the Reds had an 11-match sequence that suggested they could build up a mid-term points haul to put an icy grip on the title race. United may only have looked on the Old Trafford test against Aston Villa as a possible banana skin. And privately, the Reds might well have mapped out a 100 per cent run from before the festive season and through into the New Year. The two-and-a-half month run started well with wins against Everton, Portsmouth and West Ham. United's efforts to raise the winter temperature in the title battle as they did 12 months ago looked in good nick. But as the thermometers plummeted, the champions' form dipped too. Eight points have been squandered in that period and it looks like United fans are going to have to dig in for a real grind. Even home matches against Burnley and Hull, before that visit to Arsenal don't look quite as much a foregone conclusion as they once did. However, while councils up and down the country see their reserves of grit running low, there is no such shortage of it at Old Trafford. It would have been easy for United to lose heart at St Andrew's after they froze an in-form Birmingham City out of the first half and yet returned to the warmth of the dressing room a goal down. But they bravely rolled their sleeves up, not advisable in the Arctic conditions, and fought back to salvage a point that maybe not many will get here for the rest of the campaign. It was the same reward Chelsea left with on Boxing Day. The Reds' possession was impressive in that first 45 minutes and even on the rare occasions when they didn't have the ball Alex McLeish's side seemed to fall over themselves to give it United back. Regular observers informed the Manchester media that the Blues' first half display was the worst they'd witnessed all season. In view of that it was worrying that United were not able to convert that total control into a substantial lead. And once again it is the potency of the attack that is the concern. Figure To be in so much command of the ball and yet have only one Wayne Rooney
effort on goal in the first half - is not a return that bodes well. The England striker was a lone figure up front and although midfielders were busting a gut to join him chances were virtually as non-existent as a gritter on a side road. Some of the credit for that must go to a Birmingham side who might not have been at the peak of the form that has seen them put together an impressive run, but lacked nothing when it came to putting their bodies on the line. There were more blocks than in a Lego set as they threw themselves at anything that threatened to turn into a chance for United. It was real frantic resistance but it completely frustrated Fergie's side. In contrast, United failed to match that stubborn line clearing in the one moment when they needed it. In Birmingham's solitary penalty-box danger moment of the first half, they botched efforts to build an obstruction and Cameron Jerome finally thumped in the loose ball in the 39th minute. Tomasz Kuszczak brilliantly kept United in it by saving from a Benitez snapshot soon after half-time. The equaliser came from a driving run and low drilled shot into the danger zone by Patrice Evra. It wasn't unlike the effort from which the left-back panicked Anton Ferdinand into an own-goal saver back in October. This time the skipper forced Scott Dann to turn the ball into his own net. It increased the number of own goal assists United have been fortunate to be handed this term to five. Those goals, in statistics, are only one behind Dimitar Berbatov's and two behind Michael Owen's contributions which says it all about the Reds this season. Probably a measure of how much Sir Alex Ferguson is desperately searching for new attacking impetus came when he brought on the raw untried Mame Diouf to look for a St Andrew's winner rather than Michael Owen. Darren Fletcher's ridiculous sending off three minutes later effectively ruined ex-Molde hitman Diouf's chances of an Ole Solksjaer's type start to his Old Trafford career. Instead of a typical late onslaught 10-man United had to stave off a Birmingham attempt to snatch three points. Another stop from Kuszczak prevented them doing so.