Prior to Saturday’s game against Birmingham at St. Andrews, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger remarked that the events of the same fixture two seasons ago would have no bearing on this tie and the Arsenal players would not be thinking about it.
However, in his post-match interview, he said: “We have a big disappointment just for today and we have to continue to fight.” Wenger will recognise the importance of this game and its similarities to last season. Whilst this time there was no injury to Eduardo and no outburst from William Gallas, there was an intensity in Birmingham’s performance that resulted in a hard earned draw that has seriously stuttered Arsenal’s title challenge. Kevin Phillips’ late stroke of luck was little more than Birmingham deserved after a very even game and again showed what the veteran striker can do for the Midlands outfit. It was Phillips’ 250th career goal which, it seems, is set to continue: “It means a lot to get to 250 goals,” said the 36-year-old. “It has been a great career and it is certainly not over yet. At this stage of my career, I just want to concentrate on playing for next season. I am definitely going to play on for another season. I feel fit to play on for another year or two, definitely another year. I’m not ready to retire yet.” His contract with Birmingham runs out at the end of the season and it is yet to be seen if he will stay on at Birmingham but his intention to gain some coaching badges intimates that a career in coaching and management is imminent.
For boss Alex McLeish, it may be a shrewd move to offer Phillips the opportunity to join the club on a player/coach role. Phillips is an extremely experienced striker and would be a useful asset for McLeish. Birmingham’s deficiencies upfront this season have been a prominent problem and although Phillips clearly has the knack of scoring a goal, his influence is gradually becoming more infrequent as he becomes more aged. Should Birmingham sign Christian Benitez on a permanent basis, Phillips could be given the role of tutelage with Benitez. The diminutive Ecuadorian and Englishman have several similarities. They are built in a similar fashion and have a comparable all round game. The biggest difference between the two is the most important and one that McLeish will want to see altered. Phillips is a natural goal scorer because he is almost always in the right position at the right time. For all of his efforts and influence this season, Benitez has been unable to find the same spot often enough which has culminated in a frugal goal return.
It is still clear that Birmingham need some potency up front and this may be a possibility for McLeish who has been giving ambiguous messages about his transfer intentions: “We are looking at a number of names. It is whether I have got enough money to splash on one huge signing. That will be debatable because we may need to sign about five, six, or seven players.” McLeish also has to engineer a contract for makeshift left back Liam Ridgewell, who sees his contract run out in July and there will be no shortage of takers for the Midlands man. Aside from contract negotiations, Saturday was an excellent day for Birmingham. They fared much better against a London side than their neighbours Aston Villa. Villa’s 7-1 defeat was in stark contrast to Birmingham’s draw against Arsenal and is an interesting preface to the upcoming derby game at the end of April. That game is now Birmingham’s one remaining important match and McLeish will be hoping that his side can retain the form shown against Arsenal for the all-important clash with Villa.
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