Birmingham v Tottenham: McLeish wants more from Blues’ new boys
SPURS fans who have a passing knowledge of rivalling Premier League outfits will probably be aware that Birmingham are ‘good at home’.
Few, however, will have grasped just how resilient the Blues have been at St Andrew’s since their return to the Premier League in the summer of 2009.
The ominous facts are these: Only three teams have won at Birmingham since their return to the top flight, and Alex McLeish’s side only recently lost a year-long unbeaten run at home, which stretched for 21 games from September 2009 to October 2010.
Spurs were one of the victims of that success as they were held to a 1-1 draw in January, Liam Ridgewell cancelling out Jermain Defoe’s opener in the 90th minute.
Everton ended City’s record in October but Birmingham have since taken seven points from a possible nine at home, the latest triumph coming with a 1-0 win over Chelsea.
The key to City’s fortress is a miserly rearguard and McLeish’s side had the third-best home defence in the league last season, conceding just 13 goals, with only Manchester United (12) and Spurs (12) doing better.
It has been a similar story this campaign, with Birmingham shipping just five league goals at home in seven games – better than everyone except Chelsea, and equal with Sunderland.
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Ben Foster has replaced Joe Hart in goal, and he is protected by ex-Spurs right-back Stephen Carr, Roger Johnson, Scott Dann and Ridgewell – a consistent five-man rearguard which has played all 15 league games together.
McLeish swaps between 4-5-1 and 4-4-2, depending on the fixture, but Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson are always key figures in the centre of midfield.
Republic of Ireland international Keith Fahey is also a regular, while former Gunner Sebastian Larsson is an underrated player and a set piece expert.
Another ex-Arsenal midfielder, Alexander Hleb, arrived on loan from Barcelona in the summer, but his time in the Midlands has been mixed.
Having criticised the Blues’ style of play earlier in the season, the Belarus international was dropped from the starting line-up that beat Chelsea, before being restored and setting up Larsson’s goal in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Fulham.
“I’ve repeatedly told him that he is not fit enough to start games,” says McLeish. “He was disappointed not to start against Chelsea.
“He thought it was a slight and was a bit embarrassed by that. A top player thinks he can just walk into the team – but it doesn’t work like that.”
Up front, Cameron Jerome often operates as a lone front man, or alongside 6ft 7.5ins giant Nikola Zigic, the tallest player in the league, who has netted just two league goals for his new team.
“For such a big guy, the aggression is not in his game. He’s a passionate guy but we’ve tried to put aggression in his game and he is getting better,” says McLeish.
“It is about telling him to attack the ball because in Europe he probably only heads the ball three or four times in a game, and it’s the same with Serbia.”
The verdict: Birmingham may be tight at the back but they struggle at the other end and have the third-worst offensive record in the league.
City will be dangerous from set pieces thanks to Larsson’s consistently accurate deliveries so Spurs will have to keep an eye on Johnson, Dann and Ridgewell, who have contributed five goals this season – and Zigic of course.
McLeish is likely to go 4-5-1 and aim to frustrate Spurs, who are in good form but have been unpredictable on the road. This could be City’s eigth draw of the season.
Prediction: Birmingham 1 Spurs 1