Today sees Birmingham City, and their fans, return to Fratton Park, the ground at which their FA Cup campaign reached its conclusion.
For those supporters making the long journey south, some of whom will have made the same trip last Saturday, a repeat performance would not be acceptable. Alex McLeish has been praised consistently this season for his tactical nous, particularly during the much discussed unbeaten run. In recent games, however, the squad selection has changed along with the formation and results have deteriorated and many fans will be wishing for a turn in fortunes down south. Since the start of the year, Birmingham have won just two league games and have seen their FA Cup hopes end. By the same token, they have lost three of their last seven Premier League games which has seen their European hopes end also. Of course, all of this has to be put in to context. The Blues have reached the desired number of points for survival and any extra points this season would be a bonus but this cannot disguise the feeling of discontent at recent performances. One of the most obvious reasons for this drop in form is Alex McLeish’s decision to put Christian Benitez on the bench and bring in Keith Fahey.
Although Benitez did not score many goals and was generally a frustrating enigma in front of goal in 2009, his omission from the first team line up appears to have broken something that need not be fixed. Indeed, Chucho’s arrival on to the pitch on Saturday sparked a new energy and his 15 minute cameo appeared to reinvigorate a depleted Birmingham side. Whether McLeish is keeping Benitez out of the team due to injury or a willingness to not see the diminutive Ecuadorian return next season is debatable but it would appear that his days in Birmingham are coming to an unfortunate end. His arrival to Birmingham was shrouded in secrecy with a large number of rumours surrounding the terms on which Blues had signed him. Eventually, it was revealed that he was signed on a one-year loan deal for a small fee. Whilst he is an enjoyable player to watch in full flow, his efforts this season are not a justification for a large transfer fee that would be necessary should McLeish wish to acquire him. Chucho has left boss McLeish in a quandary. He will be tempering with the idea of reverting to the selection of last year and putting Benitez up front with Cameron Jerome, but on the other hand, he will want to try and make the current formation of McFadden just behind Jerome with Fahey out on the left, work.
Now is the time for experimentation. Barring their final position, the remainder of this season bodes little importance for the Midlands outfit, apart from the predictably intense derby against Aston Villa in April. Of course McLeish will want to take Birmingham as high up the table as possible and in to a final top half position and for that reason, the season is still of interest. McLeish, along with owner Carson Yeung, will want the end of the season to portray the best light of Birmingham. If they can finish in the top half, the calibre of players that they can sign in the summer will be better and the mood around the club with be far improved for the summer. Their remaining fixtures are a dichotomy of each other, they face Aston Villa, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton. All these games are extremely difficult and it would be a bonus if they managed to win any of them. At the opposite end of the table, Birmingham also meet Portsmouth, Sunderland, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley and Hull which are all games that they could feasibly win with relative ease. As we have found out this season, no result is predictable and Birmingham’s inconsistent form of late gesticulates that the end of their campaign will be an amalgamation of good and bad games.
First up will be Portsmouth and judging by the spirit the south coast club showed on Saturday, Birmingham are in for another difficult encounter. Alex McLeish will be desperate for his players to repay the travelling fans with a victory and to leave Portsmouth with some form of reward. However, he and everyone associated with Birmingham will know that even if they win on Tuesday, Pompey have won the war between the two by reaching a semi-final at Wembley.
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