Date: 22nd January 2011 at 4:37am
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Berbatov -scores an absolute peach agaisnt Brum at St Andrews

With the ‘noisy neighbours’ breathing down our necks the home visit of Birmingham cannot afford to be taken for granted despite the fact on paper it looks an easy three points.

Birmingham may occupy 16th place in the EPL but don’t let that fool you into thinking they’re a pushover. The midlands outfit have drawn five of their ten away games which shows just how difficult to beat Alex McCleish’s men can be. Of course United already know  this from our own trip to St Andrews where regardless of the   help they got  from some dreadful refereeing, Birmingham still managed to earn a draw.

United’s home form has been excellent though, winning ten and drawing one of the eleven EPL games at Old Trafford this season. It would be nothing short of a major upset if The Reds failed to take all three points today and in his weekly press conference a rather laid back and somewhat jovial Sir Alex Ferguson, noted the lack of goals in the games against Birmingham and how that needed to change. Obviously the United boss isn’t hoping his defence starts being more generous and the idea of getting more than the usual one goal against Birmingham smacks of realistic expectation rather than dismissive arrogance.

If United are to win and win convincingly then nothing can be taken for granted against a stingy Birmingham defence which has conceded less away goals this season than teams like high flying Spurs and Bolton. With Man City and Arsenal both having fairly winnable games- although according to my accumulators this season nothings been that foregone- United cannot afford to start dropping points at home to teams fighting relegation.

Sir Alex will also have a pretty strong squad to choose from with only Park on international duty, the suspended Rafael,  plus the injured Valencia- who’s now doing light running in training and Owen Hargreaves unavailable.

Birmingham have a Carling Cup semi-final coming up but anyone that thinks Alex McCleish may give up on this game before it’s even begun would be making a serious mistake. The well-tanned Scot takes every game very seriously and his team have taken points off United, City, Spurs and Chelsea this season, by giving their all against whoever they face and Saturday should be no different. Birmingham can take a very small amount of comfort from the fact that their neighbours West Brom managed to come away from The Theatre of Dreams with a point so not all hope is lost.

Birmingham have been dealt a devastating blow recently however, with the news that defender Scott Dann will be out for the rest of the season. Dann has been a rock for McCleish’s side and losing him will make their task at Old Trafford all the more greater.

So who can Birmingham rely on to try and cause one of the upsets of the season and break the air of ‘invincibility’ that’s creeping into Sir Alex’s team?

Ones to Watch /Head to Head

Ben Foster- Don’t laugh- and if you saw his display in the Carling Cup loss to West Ham you probably did, but Foster can still be a decent shot stopper on his day. Returning to his former club where by all accounts in a five game display of ineptitude at the beginning of last season he all but ended both his United and England career- Foster will have a big point to prove.

It’s anyone’s guess who Sir Alex will choose to spearhead the attack but my money’s on Chicharito and Rooney. Whoever is chosen may find it a little more difficult than Carlton Cole did and if an early goal isn’t forthcoming it could lead to a frustrating afternoon.

With United scoring 29 goals in the Premier League at Old Trafford this season, you’d expect them to add at least one to that tally against Birmingham. If Foster puts in the sort of performance that convinced Sir Alex to buy him from Stoke then it may not be all plain sailing for United’s strike force.

Nikola Zigic  – The only striker in Premier League history who can make Peter Crouch look small, Zigic caused united problems- albeit unfairly in the game at St. Andrews. There’s no guarantee he’ll start and has more often been used as a substitute but if Birmingham are chasing the game then don’t be surprised if they adopt a long ball approach, using the beanpole front man as their target. Although a record of only 2 Premier League goals all season makes him about as prolific as Emile Heskey, Zigic’s height alone means he’s a tricky prospect for any defender.

If Sir Alex does start with Vidic and Ferdinand you’d expect them to easily marshall the lanky Serbian- in fact you’d presume Vidic would ‘jump’ at the chance to mark his countryman- sorry that was shameful. If Fergie rests either of his two main defenders then Evans or Smalling- or maybe even Wes Brown at centre back will have to ‘spring’ into action to keep him quiet- sorry that was even worse.

Lee Bowyer- if there’s one player with a face that’s begging to be slapped more than Lee Bowyer’s then I’d love to meet him. The former Leeds man is the epitome of horrible , dirty, nasty little…. that you hate seeing united midfielders playing against. The reason? Because players like Bowyer always revert back to what they know best once superior playmakers start passing and dribbling the ball past them- they kick, they stamp, they get in your ear and face, they do anything but play football in an effort to stop you.

if Paul Scholes does make a return tomorrow- and the smart money says he will- then I’d love nothing more than to see a ‘typical Paul Scholes’ tackle give Bowyer some just desserts for his stamping of Gibson in the game at St Andrew’s- the one that inexplicably led to a yellow card?!

The main thing United players need to do is not sink to Bowyer’s level and remember that even at his peak Kieron Dyer’s former ‘bezzie’ wouldn’t have gotten near United’s reserves- unless we were looking for a mascot to scare the kids away.

All in all the game tomorrow may well tell us Fergie’s thinking when it comes to Rafael’s understudy- I do hope it’s Brown but have a sneaky feeling Fergie will prefer O’Shea, it may also give us some idea as to whether a certain scouse striker is back to his best yet. One thing’s for sure if United don’t walk out of Old Trafford with all three points then it will tell us the Premier League really is far from over.

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