Last Saturday’s game against Wigan saw Birmingham reach the sacred 40 point mark. To reach 40 points with 11 games to spare is testament to how well boss Alex McLeish and the squad have done this season – they and local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers were tipped to be relegation certainties and whilst the Wolves contingent have struggled to truly get to grips with the Premier League, McLeish’s men have thrived.
McLeish himself has praised his player’s effort: “To get to 40 points before March is an outstanding feat from a squad that cost £10m in the summer to assemble.” This season has seen the birth of players’ footballing careers and the revitalisation of others. It has also proved that McLeish is worthy of Premier League management – after Birmingham were relegated under the Scot in 2008, many fans were sceptical as to whether McLeish was the right man to lead Birmingham. Whilst the 2007/08 season’s relegation was not completely McLeish’s fault, there was still an overriding sense of doubt surrounding the Scot’s position as manager. Now that McLeish has led Birmingham to safety so early on in the season, future plans can be made, and attention can be focussed upon the upcoming FA Cup tie at Portsmouth. The FA Cup is now of paramount importance – if Birmingham can beat the troubled south coast side, it will set up a tie at Wembley and, even more excitingly, potentially see them play against local rivals Aston Villa. Whilst many fans will have rejoiced at Villa’s defeat at Wembley on Sunday, the entire experience of seeing the drama that surrounds a game at Wembley will have whet the appetite of all possible Wembley suitors.
This season is already an undeniable success so anything else is an added luxury. A trip to Wembley would be one of the best ways for Blues to show owner Carson Yeung, the fans, and the rest of the league, that their football is progressing and that more investment is inevitable – it is common parlance nowadays that players are attracted to clubs because of the ability to reach the upper echelons of major competitions. If Birmingham can be seen to reach the semi-finals and possibly the final of arguably the biggest domestic cup competition in Europe, they will have a lot more substance to their transfer ambitions. In turn, this would provide McLeish with the perfect springboard to ignite the new Birmingham – he will be able to spend this £40m that is supposedly available and bring in players of a higher calibre to St.Andrew’s.
As McLeish has noted, Birmingham are perceived as an ideal cup tie team – they do not score enough goals in the league, a problem which will need to be addressed in the summer, but cup ties are set up for the Blues without an attacking threat. They are defensively sound and extremely difficult to break down and as a result. In their four FA cup ties, Birmingham have conceded two goals and against Portsmouth’s attack, it is a likely possibility that that amount will stay the same – if it does, Birmingham’s sporadic forward play should penetrate Portsmouth’s frail defence and nick a winning goal. McLeish has rightly said that the cup tie will not be a formality and that Pompey’s recent financial difficulties do not mean anything on the pitch: “Portsmouth are backed into a corner, they had a great result at the weekend, and have some great players. They are on their own patch and, as anyone knows in this league, including the top teams like Manchester United and Chelsea, it is not easy to go away and win.”
An added incentive for Birmingham is found through Joe Hart. The young goalkeeper will be desperate to impress England Head Coach Fabio Capello before this summer’s World Cup – on form alone, Hart should be a certainty for the number one spot but it is his apparent lack of experience on the big occasion and in games for England that is his major detraction. Hart’s omission from the starting line-up in Wednesday’s friendly suggests that he is too inexperienced in Capello’s eyes, but the young man, who seems to be very determined, will not want to let his form drop in the knowledge that in a similar capacity to the problems at left-back, he could be in-line for the number one spot in the summer. Due to this, Hart will be desperate for Birmingham to beat Portsmouth and set up a game at Wembley to prove his credentials to Capello. Fortunately for Hart, the 10 men in front of him will be fearless and committed to the cause – they have beaten Everton, Nottingham Forest and Derby on their way to the sixth round so a tie against Pompey should bring no new fear.
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