BIRMINGHAM CITY FC
v
ARSENAL FC

St.Andrew’s, Birmingham
January 1st, 2010, 10:55 PM IST

Arsenal will kick start the new year with a tough away trip to St.Andrew’s, facing a blue-clad opponent for the third time in five days. Both the teams came away with contrasting draws in the midweek fixture, with the home side benefitting from a refereeing error and the Gunners at the receiving end of inconsistent refereeing. There has been a lot of animosity between Alex McLeish and Mr.Wenger, after the infamous Eduardo incident at the same ground in early 2008, and the stage is set for another engaging tussle between the two sides.

Brum have an enviable record of losing only once in the last 24 Premier League games at home, and will be looking to continue in the same vein against Arsenal. They managed to snatch victory from the Red Devils in the last game in controversial circumstances; the ball had bounced off Zigic’s arm in the build-up to Bowyer’s goal, but the incident was ignored by the referee. However, considering their spirited display, they deserved to share the points. With just 19 points in the season so far, they hover above the relegation zone, and will be gunning for no more than three points against the visitors. One can expect a lot of long balls to Zigic and counter-attacking tactics in this game.

Arsenal were hailed as genuine title contenders following their emphatic 3-1 win over London rivals Chelsea, but predictably failed to make use of the opportunity to close the gap on table leaders Manchester United, succumbing to a 2-2 draw against Wigan. Wenger rang in eight changes for the side from the previous game, and the squad was good enough on paper. However, a dubious penalty to Wigan and ignored calls for a clear handball in the Wigan box led to Arsenal dropping two precious points in the fag end of the year 2010. While the referee may have ruined Arsenal’s day, the blame lies with Wenger in making so many changes, thereby upsetting the rhythm of the team’s game; most of the players didn’t have sufficient playing time with each other, and the link between the midfield and the other two areas was almost non-existent. One can expect almost the same side from the Chelsea game to start against Birmingham, and anything other than a win will curtail Arsenal’s title bid.

The last game between the two sides saw Chamakh help the Gunners prevail over Birmingham at the Emirates, winning a penalty and then slotting in the winning goal to cancel out Zigic’s header. With van Persie also available for selection, it remains to be seen who will feature in the forward line in Arsenal’s 4-3-3 formation.

Teams News and Tactical Brief

Birmingham City

The club has no injury concerns apart from James McFadden, who is out for the long term. Former Gunner Aliskandr Hleb is recovering from a hamstring injury, but could make it to the bench. Given Arsenal’s inability to defend in set pieces, Zigic will certainly merit a place in the starting eleven; the key question is whether McLeish would also play Jerome alongside the lanky Serbian or stick to the 4-5-1 formation which served his purpose most of the time. Lee Bowyer, Craig Gardner, Sebastian Larsson and Barry Ferguson will comprise the midfield, with Beausjour or Hleb as an addition in the 4-5-1 setup.

Bowyer – vital cog in Brum’s engine


Arsenal are enjoying a rare season on the medical front, with all their key players available for selection. Birmingham will have to deal with Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, two players capable of turning the game in the Gunners’ favour in the blink of an eye. In addition, the return of Robin Van Persie and the aerial threat posed by Chamakh will add pressure on the center back duo of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, while the wingers will have to assist the fullbacks in dealing with either Nasri or Walcott. The onus will be on the experienced Lee Bowyer to anchor the midfield, with able support from Ferguson and Gardner to stop the Arsenal captain from executing his trademark visionary passes. Birmingham are not generally known to park the bus, so the key task would be to contain Cesc and co in the midfield, and aim to net goals on the counter or from set pieces.

Possible Starting XI: Foster, Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell, Larsson, Bowyer, Ferguson, Gardner, Beausjour, Zigic

Arsenal

Abou Diaby returned from a lengthy layoff, coming on as a substitute in the Chelsea game. He was handed a start against Wolves, but limped off the field after just 27 minutes with a calf-strain; Wenger has confirmed that the Frenchman will be out for ‘some’ weeks.  Vermaelen and Almunia remain long term absentees, but Kieran Gibbs could be on the bench after recuperating from an ankle sprain. Arsene will be banking on the creative duo of Nasri and Fabregas to pull the strings in midfield, with Walcott, Chamakh and van Persie wreaking havoc in the opposition defence. Johann Djourou has been a revelation in the center back slot alongside Koscielny, and the fact that Arsenal has yet to lose a game featuring the big Swiss is a testament to his effectiveness. Wenger will have to choose the team carefully, with an eye on the upcoming Manchester City clash on Wednesday.

Will Arsenal handle set pieces well?


Birmingham are a stubborn opponent, relying on their inherent bulldog spirit to carry them through the game. They will aim to hit the Gunners in their weakest spot, namely set pieces. Djourou has been winning all aerial balls launched towards his box, but overpowering Zigic will be his biggest task to date. The Serbian was allowed time and space to score a header in the prior fixture between the two sides, but this time Djourou should deliver the goods against the 6’8” tall player. Clichy will have to handle former Gunner Larsson, who has been one of Brum’s integral players, while Sagna will keep a leash on Gardner or Beausjour on the right flank.  Upfront, Arsenal has enough firepower to hammer the Blues defence, but the defense, with assistance from Song and Wilshere, must deliver the goods for Wenger’s side.

Probable Starting XI: Fabianski, Sagna, Djourou, Squillaci, Clichy, Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie, Walcott

Football Fans Know Better

Key Facts

  1. Birmingham have lost only one of their last twenty four games at St.Andrew’s.
  2. There have been four red cards in last seven games between the two sides.
  3. Arsenal have not maintained a clean sheet in their last seven games.
  4. Birmingham have scored in injury time in three of their last four home games against Arsenal.


TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR

Cesc Fabregas
The Arsenal captain showed the world why he is highly rated, as he worked in tandem with Walcott to surge Arsenal to an unstoppable 3-0 lead against Chelsea. He did not feature in the Wigan game, and will be fresh for the Brum encounter. Not only has he delivered on the attacking front, he has shown willingness to move deep and assist in defense when needed, making him one of the most complete midfielders in the League.


TheHardTackle’s Prediction

Birmingham 1-2 Arsenal
Although Birmingham are difficult to beat at home, they could find the going tougher against a very strong Arsenal side, one which demolished Chelsea just 5 days ago. Though the odds are heavily in favour of a draw for Brum, the Gunners could nick this one if they demonstrate their new-found tenacity in away games.