In their final appearance in front of the St.Andrew’s crowd this season, Birmingham City left much to suggest that next season will be a prosperous one. A blunder by Burnley goalkeeper Brain Jensen set the tone for the game and Alex McLeish will be happy that his normally goal-shy side capitalised on some good fortune by adding a second – even better, in fact, was that it was Christian Benitez’s timely first strike at St.Andrew’s that got them that second goal. The diminutive Ecuadorian has done little to suggest Birmingham will agree to the transfer fee needed to make his deal permanent but his effort and Alex McLeish’s comments do little to dampen thoughts that the striker has played his final game in Birmingham: “We will cross that bridge regarding Benitez’s future when we come to it,” he said, adding: “I will assess everything in the next couple of weeks. We have a deadline of May 25 to decide what we want to do. He has done well for us and we have to consider everything.”
Whilst McLeish has not categorically ruled out the signing nor rejected the possibility, the future does not appear to be blue for Benitez. If McLeish does indeed evaluate Benitez’s season, it will be difficult to justify and transfer fee that is being requested. His arrival was shrouded in confusion over the terms of his contract and since then, things have never really kicked off. His tentative nature in front of goal has been a constant worry and resulted in more substitute appearances in the second half of the season. Whilst his commitment and endeavour have never been in question, compatibility to English football has. Just four goals and six assists have been the return for Benitez’s efforts this campaign – with McLeish intimating a paltry summer budget lies ahead, his money may be better spent elsewhere. As lovable a character as Benitez is, Birmingham’s infrequency in goal has been down to him in part and McLeish desperately needs to address that. Next season, they may not be lucky enough to survive so fruitfully on just a goal a game and will need a striker that is more lethal in front of goal.
Away from transfers, this season, by fact, has been the club’s best ever and their highest league position since 1951. Alex McLeish’s squad, for all its faults, has found a way of accumulating points, particularly at home. Saturday’s win was the eighth win at St.Andrew’s this term. In avoiding defeat to Burnley, the Blues completed an unbeaten stretch of home games. Boss Alex McLeish has applauded this run himself: “It was very important to sustain the home record, not to lose here since September is a marvellous achievement.” Birmingham’s home form is responsible for just under 75% of their points tally. That number, 33, would have them just one point behind 17th place West Ham which is a testament to how well Birmingham have played this season – for a newly promoted club to have such a healthy home record speaks volumes for the management.
For Birmingham, there is still much to improve on at home. Whilst 33 points is a respectable amount in almost anybody’s books, no home victories against any side above them in the league will be something that McLeish will want to address. An extension – Birmingham have not beaten a top 8 side in the league this season. Should they wish to improve upon their seemingly inevitable finishing position of 9th next year, they will need to find a way of beating the teams above them. As the Aston Villa, Everton and Liverpool games (to name a few) showed, they are not far away from gaining such results. Had they converted anyone of the seven drawn games against higher opposition (at home) this season, a higher points tally, and possibly position, would have been the reward.
Whilst there are still improvements to make, St.Andrew’s has been a haven for Birmingham this season and a few additions in the summer could see a ground that is already one of the most formidable in the league, become even more testing. After all, Birmingham are all about improving upon expectations: “At the beginning of the season we targeted a point a game,” said McLeish.
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