Birmingham City (A) Preview – A Win Required
Whenever Brum is mentioned, the first thing that springs to mind is the TV programme, the adventures of a toy yellow vintage car. Sort of The Plank for kids without the humour. This afternoon will be anything but child’s play. Birmingham City has outperformed expectations this season, on course for a top ten finish, carried there by good home form. So far this season, they have taken points from all of the other top five teams who have visited St Andrews, all through draws. An indication that they will be obdurate opponents.
But Arsenal has to win, to keep the pressure on Chelsea and Manchester United, ready to capitalise on any slips which may arise, the prime motivation at this stage of the season. Arsène is acutely aware of this, focussing the team on the matter in hand rather than preparing for the Barcelona encounter by giving key players a rest.
Wenger has kept it simple: Barcelona does not matter until 5pm this evening. Winning at Birmingham is all that counts. Much of the media build-up is dominated by the corresponding fixture in 2008. I am not sure that it will play on the collective minds of the squad although Eduardo may well feel some trepidation. According to some headlines, Alex McLeish refused to be drawn on the matter which is a fine attitude for the squad to have but not so good if you are a cartoonist. 2008 is in the past and there it should remain; lessons have been learned, hurdles overcome since then.
Whilst the plight of Eduardo has been the focus of attention similarities abound with 2007/08. Then it was Robin van Persie and Matthieu Flamini whose contracts garnered column inches, Wenger ultimately putting those negotiations on hold until after the title race was won (or in that instance, lost). This time it is William Gallas although Mikael Silvestre and Sol Campbell are free to talk in similar circumstances. Gallas may have more monetarily advantageous offers on the table. If that is the case, he is being creditably discreet about his intentions. I hope he does remain at Arsenal, his form this season proving many of us wrong, recovering standing that was lost in the debacle at St Andrews and autobiography.
Eduardo is not the only one who has bad memories of that day in 2008. The last minute penalty conceded by Clichy was overshadowed by Gallas’ tantrum. The left back has put it behind him and is finding consistency in his performances. Well, he has had that for a while but now it is being acknowledged by some who were slating him on his return from injury.
A fixture at St Andrews may cause Arsène to cast a prayer to the Heavens as King Ungus did in the 8th Century. Central defence is his obvious concern with Thomas Vermaelen’s suspension coming a week too early for the recall of William Gallas. The Frenchman will return to training this weekend, presumably looking at a run-out against Wolves to gain fitness ahead of the Champions League second leg in the Camp Nou. Wenger has made it clear that Campbell will play today.
Who partners him should be simple; Alex Song. His form in central midfield has been outstanding, acknowledged recently by Wenger and Arshavin. To place Mikael Silvestre alongside Campbell is risky, the ageing duo would not be the quickest pairing in Premier League history. This would present Denilson with another opportunity to be battered with criticism, sorry, prove that he is a better player than he is given credit for, forming a midfield triumvirate with Diaby and Cesc.
Up front Nicklas Bendtner appears to have solved his fitness problems which leaves Wenger with options in attack; Rosicky, Eduardo or Arshavin on the left, Eboue with Nasri or Walcott on the right. Rosicky will probably get the nod ahead of the other two, both being on the bench. Theo is due a start, one which I suspect will happen this afternoon. He has the pace to worry the Birmingham defence as well as allowing Nasri a rest before the Champions League clash. Eboue, I think, will deputise for Sagna at right back, a rotation that Arsene seems to have been carrying out for a while now. I recall vaguely that Sagna was carrying a knock a few weeks back, the consistent resting indicates that he is being nursed through it rather than fully rested.
Those changes would mean a line-up of:
Almunia; Eboue, Campbell, Song, Clichy; Denilson, Fabregas, Diaby; Rosicky, Bendtner, Walcott
With a bench of:
Fabianski, Silvestre, Sagna, Nasri, Arshavin, Eduardo, Vela
Looking at United and Chelsea’s fixtures today, it is hard to see either dropping points. Bolton are frankly not good enough to take points off United, even if the defending Champions are not as strong as they have been in the past. Villa are inconsistent and whilst they won at Old Trafford, their recent form does not suggest that they will win at Stamford Bridge. Mind you, Chelsea are equally inconsistent so perhaps a draw there.
Arsenal has seven Cup Finals; seven must-win matches. Apply any cliché you so desire. No-one will care for it is better to be in a position to have to use those stale phrases than not. Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.