BIRMINGHAM CITY FC
The Emirates, London
October 16th, 2010, 7:25 PM IST
Arsenal face a dodgy opponent in Birmingham City at the Emirates. It is a must-win encounter for the home side, which has slipped to the fourth spot in the table, seven behind league leaders Chelsea. The two-week international break would be a welcome respite for the Gunners, following a near-humiliating loss to West Bromwich in their own backyard and an expected loss to their London compatriots at Stamford Bridge; they would be keen to start on a fresh slate and make the most of the matches that come along their way. The side will be buoyed by the return of key personnel to the field, particularly Fabregas and Walcott. They need to grab all three points from the game, if they are to contest a serious claim for the title.
Birmingham have not had a good season so far either, having drawn three and losing two of their last five fixtures. This is quite a stark contrast to the side which lost only two games at home last season and finished comfortably in mid-table. However, they do have the capability to grind out results, as evinced by their last-gasp equalizer against the Gunners last season. They can take heart from West Bromwich’s game plan at the Emirates, and manager Alex McLeish might consider deploying a similar attacking stratagem against Wenger’s lads.
The encounters between the two teams have been fairly gripping, beginning with the unforgettable match of Feb 23rd 2008, which saw a reckless Martin Taylor tackle put Eduardo’s football career in jeopardy; the game was one of the darkest days in Arsenal’s history, and also triggered a collapse for the Gunners, who had been one of the front runners for the trophy. Every encounter following this game has always bore a tinge of distaste against the Men in Blue, whom the Arsenal faithful still hold responsible for Eduardo’s inability to replicate his imperious form before the injury. The Gunners will be looking to defeat Brum in Saturday’s fixture, before ironically facing Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek; Eduardo could feature in the game, but in Donetsk colours.
The other key point of the game could be the return of ex-gunner Alexander Hleb, who was incidentally one of the witnesses to the horrific Eduardo injury. He was one of the vital cogs in Arsenal’s run to the title in 2007-08, enjoying a fruitful partnership with Fabregas and Flamini. Having been loaned to Birmingham from Barcelona, the Belarussian could feature in the Blues starting line-up, based on his familiarity with his old club and the Arsenal style of play. It would be interesting to see close pals Fabregas and Hleb pitted against each other in the midfield, should the occasion arise.
Although Arsenal are the firm favorites in this fixture, the loss against West Bromwich should serve as a reminder that the league is more competitive than ever, and that the lower clubs are no longer fazed by the ‘Big Four’. This, coupled with the ascendency of Manchester City as a title contender, means that the Gunners will have to give their all in each and every encounter, if they are to retain a place in the top four.
The club has a history of being plagued by injuries to key personnel every year, and this season is no exception. Arsenal missed five key players for the Chelsea clash, players who had the ability to change the course of the game. Of these players, Fabregas, Bendtner and Walcott may be back in contention for the Brum encounter. The talismanic captain’s absence was felt a lot in the Chelsea game, as his vision would have enabled the team’s forwards to be more clinical in front of goal. But Wenger has ruled him out for this clash, while welcoming back Walcott and Bendtner. The English star had an excellent start to the season, before an ankle injury picked up on international duty sidelined the forward for six weeks. Nicklas Bendtner aggravated his groin injury during his World Cup stint, but he is now fit and is raring to get back to Premiership action. His return would provide some competition to Marouane Chamakh for the center forward spot, which would only do a world of good to Wenger. Almunia is also purported to be fit for the game, and may just displace Fabianski from between the posts.
However, Van Persie and Thomas Vermaelen continue to remain on the sidelines, the latter’s Achilles injury taking longer to heal than expected. Sagna confirmed that he had sustained a thigh injury in the Chelsea game, and is ruled out until November; Eboue is an able replacement for him. Wenger confirmed that Koscielny is out with a back injury, so Djourou and Squillaci start in the center of the defense.
Jack Wilshere has been the find of the season, having made his contributions recognized in Cesc’s absence, and is an automatic choice in the midfield along with Song. Cesc might start from the bench, so Diaby would feature in the starting lineup.
Probable Starting XI : Almunia, Eboue, Squillaci, Koscielny, Clichy, Song, Diaby, Wilshere, Nasri, Arshavin, Chamakh
Birmingham City FC
The Blues will be without Scotland star James McFadden, who sustained an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury to his left knee, and new signing Jean Beausejour was touted as his replacement. However, the Chilean winger sustained a frustrating knee-ligament strain and will not be risked for the Emirates clash. Other than that, McLeish has no injury worries.
McLeish will be targeting Arsenal’s shaky defense, by deploying Jerome or Zigic upfront and relying on wing play to deliver crosses to them. Sebastian Larsson and Alex Hleb will provide the creative outlet in the midfield, and Song and Wilshere will have to deny these two players any space. The side will also be boosted by the return of veteran striker Kevin Phillips, who salvaged a draw for his team against the Gunners in the last encounter.
Probable Starting XI: Foster, Dann, Johnson, Ridgewell, Carr, Bowyer, Ferguson, Gardner, Larsson, Hleb, Jerome
1. Birmingham have not won an away game against Arsenal.
2. The Gunners have won five of their last ten encounters with the Blues.
3. Arsenal have led against Birmingham on four occasions, with the Midlands side drawing in three of them.
TheHardTackle’s Player To Watch Out For
Samir Nasri (Arsenal)
The Frenchman was one of the most consistent players in recent games. He nearly inspired Arsenal to a draw against West Bromwich single-handedly, and is capable of scoring goals from nowhere. Ridgewell and co will have a hard time countering his bag of tricks.
Arsenal 2-1 Birmingham
TheHardTackle’s Blast From The Past