United face a tricky trip to St. Andrew’s on Tuesday to play a Birmingham side that surprisingly lie in 17th place, just two points off the relegation zone. Surprising because in their last six games they have taken points from City, Spurs and also beaten a stuttering Chelsea, whilst only conceding three goals in this time. Considering Birmingham have conceded just four more than United all season, it hardly bodes well for a high-scoring encounter, particularly given United’s lack of success on the road this season.
Sir Alex faces another one of his former players this week in the shape of Alex McLeish, who seems to be one of the few Premier League managers who avoid constant speculation regarding their future. He has built a team that first and foremost is hard to break down, and so it is no surprise that Birmingham’s most influential players this season are mainly in defence.
A lack of victories against teams who are considered Birmingham’s mid-table rivals has been their main downfall so far this season, with draws against Wigan, Villa and the Scousers-how funny is it referring to the Scousers as ‘mid-table’ -to name a few. But it is the big games where Birmingham have stepped up, losing only once to a top 7 team this season, so it would be no surprise if Tuesday’s game was one that will be decided by a moment of genius, a mistake or maybe even plain luck.
The fact Birmingham have only two points more than West Ham- albeit having played two games less is quite a staggering statistic as the Irons have seemed like a club in disarray for much of the season while Mcleish’s men are still thought of as a fairly well oiled machine.
United meanwhile remain unbeaten this season, but have taken only nine points from a possible twenty one on the road. United haven’t lost to Birmingham in their last 23 meetings, and seem to be nearing their best as the New Year approaches. Obviously as soon as the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve United transform into a juggernaut of free flowing, free scoring football that lasts until May and it seems this could be the toughest game they will face prior to this marvellous occurrence.
Ones to watch
Birmingham are one of the few Premier League teams that are genuinely a team unit with very few standout ‘stars.’ Alex McLeish has moulded a squad that’s strength often lies in its ability to support one another and work as a real team. Unlike some teams near the bottom, where it’s a case of relying on Rodellaga or Carlton Cole or Dempsey to have a good day to provide the points, Birmingham seem to have a lack of ‘stars’ but an abundance of quality, hardworking players.
So which players should United be wary of or need to keep quiet/ overcome to turn what looks like a certain draw into a definite win?
Liam Ridgewell has performed well at both ends of the pitch for Birmingham, scoring three goals and helping to keep six clean sheets. He has constructed a solid partnership with fellow centre back Scott Dann and so whoever plays up front or indeed at the back for United will have to work hard to get the better of this man.
Former United stopper/blunderer Ben Foster has produced a number of excellent displays that United fans always knew he was capable of, and has shown that he still loves United by keeping out City and Chelsea in the same week. The major errors he became famous for at Old Trafford seem to occur far less frequently and on current form you could argue that he is pushing Joe Hart very hard for the England no. 1 jersey.
Another player who has stood out is former Aston Villa midfielder Craig Gardner, who is also the club’s top scorer with four goals. This makes him the man to watch from United’s point of view as Birmingham’s inconsistent strike force shouldn’t represent much of a problem to the defence, even if Fergie decides to rest Rio or Vidic. Birmingham’s most distinguished player, Alexander Hleb could return after a month out with a hamstring injury, otherwise they are at full strength and fully rested after their match with Everton was postponed.
Naming a possible starting 11 for Tuesday’s game is anyone’s guess, as Fergie will surely rest one or two from the Boxing Day win over Sunderland. Darren Fletcher and Nani will most likely come into the team having missed this game, while the only definite absentee will be Park Ji Sung who has left us for several weeks to captain his country in the Aldi Cup. Over-30’s Rio and Giggs may struggle to play two games in the space of three days, and Fergie may use this match as another chance to give The Little Pea more football after mostly watching from the bench as Berba hit 7 in 3 games and Rooney continued his ‘comeback.’
Anderson has recently shown that his pie-eating days are behind him, and given he was taken off after an hour on Boxing Day could indicate that Fergie is prepared to unleash him again on Birmingham. However given the fact that United will play 4 games in the space of 8 days, changes are certain and so Fergie may choose to fully utilise his large squad and give games to the likes of Obertan, Smalling or even Jonny Evans.