Here it is. The game where the away team is the home team and the home team is the away team – and a local derby to boot.
While the result of this game is somewhat immaterial in the wider picture of our promotion bid, the sense of occasion and quality of opposition provide a useful rehearsal of how this team might cope later on in the campaign when the games really start to matter and against the better teams in League One.
This has all the makings of an entertaining and intriguing 90 minutes of football.
Being pragmatic, there is a strong argument for resting as many players as possible. If we are serious about winning promotion, Tuesday night’s game against Fleetwood Town is more important. Not only that, but in what is already a congested fixture list, a potential Fifth Round tie in the week between games against Sunderland and Ipswich is hardly ideal – that’s before factoring in the possibility of a replay.
However, I get the sense that Mark Robins and the players are viewing this game as the occasion and opportunity outlined earlier in this preview. It feels as if victory in this game would validate this side as worthy of playing in the Championship, at the very least, it maintains the momentum we have built over the past month.
There is unlikely to be any changes to the side that beat Doncaster Rovers last Saturday. The one area for consideration may have been introducing the more industrious Jamie Allen into the midfield unit ahead of Jordan Shipley in order to give the side extra energy without the ball and in transitions, however, the latter’s winning goal last week makes it difficult to justify dropping him – not least because Shipley is increasingly getting a reputation for performing on the big occasion.
Last Time We Met
Our last meeting with Birmingham City was the last local derby the Sky Blues have played. It was a game also notable for being the only one Richard Shaw won as caretaker manager following the sacking of Andy Thorn early into our first season after relegation from the Championship.
A Blues side, featuring former Sky Blues striker, Marlon King, took an early lead through Peter Lovenkrands, before a Carl Baker inspired comeback at the Ricoh Arena pulled as back ahead, only for Jonathan Spector to equalise just before half-time. The game meandered into extra-time, before Carl Baker stepped up in the 97th minute to send the Sky Blues through to the next round and into an away dray at Arsenal.
Manager – Pep Clotet
Stepping into the job over the summer having been the assistant manager to his predecessor, Garry Monk, Clotet has been attempting to evolve Birmingham City’s style from the hard-working, perhaps prosaic approach, of the previous regime. It has led to a transitional campaign with the squad a mix between creative, ball-playing types and honest, hard-working, experienced Championship campaigners.
However, there are increasing murmurings of discontent with Clotet’s management. While Clotet has talked up the style he wants his team to play, it has rarely seemed to have actually been enacted on the pitch. With results also inconsistent and the team 10 points above the relegation zone and possibly set for a second points deduction in the space of a year, Clotet’s fate could be sealed within the next month if there aren’t signs of improvement.
With the pressure mounting on Clotet’s job, it seems unlikely he will name a weakened side and risk the embarrassment that would come with losing ‘away’ at home to a lower division side.
Who To Look Out For?
There is considerable creative potential in Birmingham City’s midfield, even if they haven’t always shown it. The two leading lights for Blues have been Croatian international midfielder Ivan Sunjic and 16 year-old wunderkind Jude Bellingham.
Sunjic is the organiser and orchestrator at the base of midfield, capable of asserting his authority on games physically and getting Birmingham playing with his range of passing. Bellingham – although he may not feature in this game as speculation mounts over his future – is a freak of nature, a 16 year-old with the skill and physicality to stand up to Championship football and can play in just about any role between midfield and attack, he could become an absolutely sensational player.
With Coventry-born Dan Crowley, ex-Chelsea wunderkind Josh McEachran and Spain youth international Fran Villalba further creative talents, the challenge for Clotet this season has been how to fit them all in without losing out on the physical presence that more industrious players such as David Davis, Harlee Dean and Gary Gardner provide.
Caught between those two considerations, pace and penetration in attack has been seemingly overlooked at times, although the recent addition of the fast and skilful Jeremie Bela and Kerim Mrabti to the starting line-up has helped address that, while club stalwart Jacques Maghoma has always been a useful outlet for the side on either flank.
Tasked with knitting the disparate elements of this Birmingham City side together is ex-Sky Blue Lukas Jutkiewicz in attack. The target-man’s work-rate, physical presence and, most importantly, his goals have been vital for Pep Clotet this season in keeping the points ticking over.
Where The Game Will Be Won or Lost
While there is a clear gulf in both financial resources and quality between even the lower end of the Championship and the top end of League One, the momentum and confidence we are taking into this game should narrow that gap to an extent.
With both teams looking to control games in central midfield, the battle for authority in the centre of the park will dictate how the game flows. £6 million Croatian international Ivan Sunjic and the incredibly hard-working Championship regular Gary Gardner would be expected to be able to exert themselves over Liam Kelly and Liam Walsh, making the work-rate and quality that Callum O’Hare and Jordan Shipley provide ahead of our central midfield duo important in helping balancing out the midfield battle.
The quality centre-forward between the two teams is clearly Lukas Jutkiewicz, who offers both a physical presence and goal threat. While Kyle McFadzean can be effective in dealing with physical centre-forwards, that extra level of mobility that Jutkiewicz has could really force the kinds of mistakes McFadzean’s season has been littered with. Minimising Jutkiewicz’s role in the contest is likely to have a huge impact on our ability to come out on top here.