The international break is over and the league is set to continue at a relentless pace until the early part of January. Although we are currently out of the relegation zone, the next month or so looks a make or break period for our hopes of survival this season. It kicks off with a ‘home’ game against our landlords, Birmingham City, who we can drag towards our end of the division by beating.
If we are to stay up, we are going to have to raise our game significantly. We have been one of the worst teams in the division thus far – with our defence the worst in the league. Even with the caveat that we have played some of the division’s best teams over these opening 11 games, the signs aren’t good. Improvement is desperately needed and we’re going to have to do so under pressure.
The international break was much welcome to Mark Robins and the players, with the number of injuries and the sense of fatigue over the past few games. As is typical of Robins, just who is fit for this game is unclear but potential returns for Jordan Shipley, Fankaty Dabo and Matt Godden would be a huge boost to his selection options here.
Both Shipley and Dabo would probably slot straight into the side if they are fit enough to start. Shipley probably just has the edge over Callum O’Hare at the moment as a more natural central midfielder in the midfield three that we are currently playing. Dabo, as a right-footer, also has the advantage over Sam McCallum at right wing-back.
If Matt Godden is fit, it leaves Mark Robins with a big call to make in attack. While Godden has done just about everything he could be asked of to cement his starting place in the side, his lack of physicality or pace keep him at a disadvantage against Maxime Biamou and Tyler Walker. With Walker demonstrating his finishing ability last time out against Watford, it feels as if it is worth continuing with his strike pairing with Biamou to see where it can take us. Godden may have to wait his turn.
Adding a level of intrigue to this week’s team selection is the introduction of two extra substitutions by the league. Given how thin our squad is at the moment, it’s hard to see Mark Robins making full use of this new rule. However, it should help reduce the number of injuries we’re seeing and may provide fringe players such as Amadou Bakayoko, Wesley Jobello and Marcel Hilssner greater opportunity to show what they can provide the team.
Last Time We Met
Our last meeting with Birmingham City, in an FA Cup replay back in February, was an agonising opportunity to beat a team from a higher division and secure an opportunity to take on local rivals, Leicester City.
With both managers naming second-string sides, it looked to be a case of who wanted it more on the night. When Amadou Bakayoko sliced an effort past the Birmingham keeper early in the second-half, it looked like it would be enough to win the game. Having spurned further chances to secure the win, Birmingham hit us with a late sucker punch to send the game to an extra-time neither side wanted.
The Sky Blues rallied from that blow to fashion a well-worked goal for Maxime Biamou to score that surely meant it was game over. In the dying embers of extra-time, Blues winger, Jeremie Bela, woefully mishit a cross that seemed, from the packed away end, to float all the way up into the inky night sky before impossibly dropping past Marko Marosi – replays have shown the moment to be less dramatic.
It was clear it just wasn’t our night, with the penalty shoot-out nothing more than a formality for Birmingham to finish us off with.
The Manager – Aitor Karanka
A three-time Champions League winner as a player for Real Madrid in the early stages of the ‘Galaticos’ era, Aitor Karanka has forged his managerial career in the second-tier of English football through spells at Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and now, Birmingham City. As a former assistant of Jose Mourinho, Karanka has learned how to set up a defence, keeping clean sheets in around 43% of the games he’s been a manager for.
Karanka’s start at Birmingham City since his arrival in the summer has been fairly unremarkable thus far. He is attempting to lay the foundations for a solid defensive unit that can hurt teams on the counter but hasn’t quite tightened things up at the back as well as he’s done at other clubs – three clean sheets in 11 games – and the attack hasn’t quite clicked. The hope is that things will improve over the course of the season, but Karanka may find himself under pressure if his team is sucked towards the relegation zone with some more poor results over the next few games.
Who To Look Out For
The defensive shield of this Birmingham City will be crucial to their success under Aitor Karanka. To what was already an experienced back-line, Karanka has added further nous in the form George Friend at centre-back, Adam Clayton in defensive midfield and former Spain international, Mikel San Jose, who is a huge presence and can slot in at either centre-back or defensive-midfield, depending on whether Karanka wants to play a back three or not.
In addition, the signing of Neil Etheridge in goal makes Birmingham that bit tougher to score against. The Philippines international had been an integral part of a Cardiff City side that made it into the Premier League in recent years and is a tall and confident presence between the sticks. If last season’s star loan player, Jake Clarke-Salter, is also available to slot into the defence for this game, Birmingham’s back-line will be a very imposing unit to get past.
Further forward, Aitor Karanka is hoping that the pace and skill of wingers Ivan Sanchez, Jonathan Leko and Jeremie Bela offer Birmingham the ability to kill teams off on the counter. Leko and Bela are very exciting players who are a touch inconsistent at this stage in their careers but will provide the ability to run in behind even if they’re not on top form. Sanchez is a little more proven and experienced, having excelled in the Spanish second-tier in recent years with Elche, and can get past defenders with ease while offering quality with his final ball.
Up front, former Sky Blue, Lukas Jutkiewicz, has been a key presence for Birmingham over recent years. Having bulked out from his days at the Ricoh Arena, Jutkiewicz is the kind of target-man who can bully defenders into submission and will thrive on the service from wide areas that Birmingham’s wingers provide. Additionally, Scott Hogan is an effective goal poacher at this level. Having made a big impact after signing on loan in January, he has struggled to fit into Aitor Karanka’s style of play but could be useful here as a late substitute to give Birmingham extra attacking impetus.
Where This Game Will Be Won Or Lost
This is likely to be a game where we are going to feel in control for extended periods. Birmingham are likely to be happy to sit off us and soak up pressure, while our players may feel a level of comfort from not being pressed as intensely as we have been for much of the season. The crucial thing for us here will be making sure we make spells of possession count, avoiding the trap of moving the ball slow enough to allow Birmingham’s defence to get in set positions.
In addition, we need to make it more difficult for teams to score against us, avoiding the silly mistakes and lack of organisation that we’ve seen in recent games. Lukas Jutkiewicz is the kind of striker who could engender a sense of panic, opening up room for Birmingham’s pacey wingers to get into dangerous areas or else getting into goalscoring positions himself.
Set-pieces are likely to be another key area in what could be a low-scoring game. The quality of delivery that Gustavo Hamer provides could help us create chances that we may struggle to do in open play. However, with Birmingham boasting a lot of physically powerful players, we may struggle to contain them from similar situations at the other end.