The games keep coming. Our 40th game of the season, the 4th in 10 days, and another three to come in the 10 days afterwards.
With the reward for advancing in this FA Cup replay another midweek game, played between crucial games against Sunderland and Ipswich Town, the rational approach here would be to name a weak team in order to focus our efforts on the league. However, there is always the risk that losing one game, even if it’s deemed less important than others, disrupts momentum at a time we want to keep the wins ticking over.
This game presents a difficult balancing act for Mark Robins, needing to keep players fresh while looking to maintain the good feeling around the club at the moment. Were there not so many important league games within the next couple of weeks, Robins might have been minded to go as strong as possible here, but it feels as if pragmatism will rule.
Yesterday’s team selection for the under-23 side suggest that Mark Robins is looking to make a similar name of changes as he did for the replay in the previous round against Bristol Rovers. Both Josh Pask and Brandon Mason were notable for their absence with the under-23s and look set to provide a much-needed rest for both Sam McCallum and Fankaty Dabo in the wing-back positions.
Elsewhere, with Jamie Allen having been recovered relatively recently from a long-term injury and Callum O’Hare having picked up a knock around a week ago, Robins is likely to want to keep them wrapped-up in cotton wool for this game. It hands another opportunity for Jordan Shipley and Zain Westbrooke to show what they can do against Championship opposition, having struggled to impose themselves in the original tie.
The other likely change looks set to be Maxime Biamou for Matt Godden. The latter has struggled over the past three games, so while this might be a team selection decision driven by fitness, it’s an opportunity for Biamou to press his claim for a place in the starting line-up.
Last Time We Met
There was a sense of an opportunity missed at the end of the original tie ten days ago. While Birmingham City demonstrated the extra speed and physicality of the Championship early on, the Sky Blues got over that initial culture shock and increasingly imposed ourselves on our opposition as the game progressed.
Despite struggling to carve a rugged Blues defence open for much of the game, had we established a foothold earlier on, we might have had a better chance of getting the goal that would have won the tie. Although, that discussion would have been rendered academic had Callum O’Hare a modicum more composure in front of an open goal.
Manager – Pep Clotet
While doubts surround Pep Clotet’s longer-term suitability for the Birmingham City job, recent results have kept Blues out of relegation danger at a time the club is battling with Financial Fair Play issues. Inconsistent performances, poor game management and mixed messages to the media aren’t helping Clotet’s case, but he is looking likely to at least make it through to the end of the season.
13 points off the play-offs and eight above the relegation zone, Birmingham can better afford focusing their efforts on the FA Cup. Inconveniently though, they have an away trip to Bristol City on Friday evening, which may well force Clotet into making a few changes to keep players fresh.
Who To Look Out For?
Although Birmingham have tried to integrate creative, ball-playing midfielders into their side this season, the most impressive element of their side in the original tie was their physically strong and well-drilled defensive unit. With two strong and sturdy full-backs in Kristian Pedersen and Maxime Colin, along with either Harlee Dean or Marc Roberts partnering the more technical Jake Clarke-Salter, getting past and around Birmingham’s backline is going to be our primary challenge here.
Birmingham’s options for squad rotation for this game are hampered by injuries and the moving out of fringe players towards the end of the January transfer window. Ideally, the likes of Jude Bellingham and Lukas Jutkiewicz would be given the night off here, however, there are almost no available alternatives for Clotet to pick from, meaning they’ll both have to play through tiredness.
Croatian defensive midfielder Ivan Sunjic is likely to come back into the side here, having sat out Saturday’s game against Nottingham Forest. Alongside Gary Gardner, Birmingham are going to have a hard-working and diligent midfield screen ahead of their tight defensive unit.
Elsewhere, wingers Jefferson Montero and Jacques Maghoma are going to be the key area where Clotet can freshen the side up. While Jeremie Bela has been one of Birmingham’s key attacking threats recently, Montero and Maghoma can both carry the ball forward reliably, even if their final product can be erratic.
Where This Game Will Be Won Or Lost
You would hope that the message our players took from the original tie is that there is no reason they cannot take the game to Birmingham City – even without a few of our first-choice players. If we can pick up from where we left off ten days ago, we should have a better chance of picking apart Birmingham’s back-line and putting the ball into the back of the net.
With pacey wide players and Lukas Jutkiewicz to hold the ball up, Birmingham may look to play on the counter-attack here despite being the nominal home side, using our attempted hoarding of possession against us. If we repeat some of the loose play in our own half seen over the past couple of league games, Birmingham are better capable of seizing on that, as well as having the defensive strength to deny us any sniff of getting back into the game once they get their noses in front.