Preview: Birmingham City

There is probably too much to do for Coventry City to make the play-offs this season, but Sunday’s fantastic win at Fulham means that there remains a slim chance of making the top six. It sets up what could be quite an exciting Easter weekend for the Sky Blues, beginning with a local derby against Birmingham City, where two victories really would give this team something to play for in the final weeks of the campaign.

As brilliant as that win over Fulham was, the reason why Coventry City aren’t currently in the play-off picture is an inability to string together victories. That is why this Good Friday clash with Birmingham City will be as big a test of this team’s top six credentials as Sunday’s game was. It is a case of performing now or having to wait for next season for another opportunity.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Moore; Rose, Hyam, Bidwell; Dabo, Hamer, Sheaf, Maatsen; Allen, O'Hare; Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

The lack of substitutions in the Fulham game highlighted that Mark Robins has little more than 11 trusted players to call upon at the moment, due to a combination of injuries and the overall lack of squad depth. It is a situation that will not improve much between now and the end of the season, meaning that all the manager can do is hope that performance standards can be maintained over that period.

The likely return of Kyle McFadzean from injury could well represent the biggest area of change to the starting XI for this game. However, Mark Robins may be loathe to change things up in defence, given that the constant shuffling around of players across the back three may well have been a contributory factor to the lack of defensive fortitude this season. However, McFadzean’s importance as both a physical and leadership presence in the defence may well be worth any potential unsettlement caused by further defensive changes.

The other key area to watch in terms of team selection is how the midfield and attack lines up. The move to play Jamie Allen a little deeper, to make it a 3-5-1-1, rather than a 3-4-2-1, against Fulham proved to be something of a masterstroke. However, such a strategy may not be as successful against Birmingham City than it was against the league leaders, with the risk of leaving Viktor Gyokeres a little too isolated in attack. Nonetheless, the lack of alternative, quality attacking options may limit Mark Robins’ ability to provide Gyokeres with the support he requires in this game.

Last Time We Met

In what was one of the best atmospheres at the CBS Arena this season, the game that played out did not justify the fervour from the stands. With both Coventry City and Birmingham City somewhat out of form back in November, it was a clash between one team having a lot of the ball but struggling to threaten with it against another unable to threaten due to a lack of ambition to have the ball in the first place.

The game was livened up in the second-half when the referee decided to send Birmingham City’s Ryan Woods off for a cynical, but not entirely dangerous, foul on Ian Maatsen (a harsh call, in my opinion). However, Coventry City’s lack of attacking verve meant that a resolute Blues defence could hold them at bay for a drab 0-0.

The Opposition

The Manager – Lee Bowyer

A very popular appointment at the club a year ago, who did an excellent job in keeping Birmingham City in the division, Lee Bowyer’s reign at St Andrew’s is in danger of turning sour for things that aren’t entirely his fault. With the club in a shambles off the pitch – represented by a decaying St Andrew’s that has had its capacity reduced due to maintenance requirements – Bowyer has had to cobble together a team of leftovers from previous eras, inexperienced academy graduates and the handful of signings he’s been able to make.

Regularly having to field teams with multiple players out of position, what had been a decent start to the campaign for Birmingham City has spiralled into what looks set to be another lower mid-table finish. While Bowyer has come in for criticism for a lack of identity to Blues’ style of play, there’s only so much he can implement at a club that has lacked an overarching strategy for quite a long time, with a murky ownership structure and constantly looks a few months away from the next crisis – which should sound awfully familiar for any Coventry City fans with memories that stretch back a decade.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Trueman; Gordon, Roberts, Pedersen; Colin, Bacuna, Gardner, Graham; Hernandez; Hogan, Taylor.
Possible Line-Up

There are two key reasons why Birmingham City are not in relegation danger this season. The first is the performances of the, likely injured for this game, Manchester United loanee, Tahith Chong, in the early part of the campaign that made what was an otherwise stodgy Blues outfit into an effective one. The second is the January additions of Lyle Taylor, Juninho Bacuna and Onel Hernandez, that have added the touch of quality that had been missing in Chong’s absence.

For this game, that trio of Taylor, Bacuna and Hernandez are likely to be the biggest threats for Coventry City to contain. Lyle Taylor in attack is almost the ideal striker to have in a competitive local rivalry game, a fiery character who can lead the line with his energy and physicality, while having the presence of mind to finish when chances come his way. Juninho Bacuna is a skilful presence in central midfield who can drift past opponents and get the team up the pitch. While, Onel Hernandez, is a direct, goal-threatening wide player of a good standard at Championship level.

Another key dangerman for Birmingham City is Scott Hogan, who looks set to partner Lyle Taylor in attack. While he can blow hot and cold, Hogan’s ten goals from 33 appearances this season underlines that he can be an effective goal poacher on a reasonably consistent basis. If all else fails for the Blues, former Sky Blues striker, Lukas Jutkiewicz, is a significant physical presence up front to deploy from the bench.

Elsewhere, Jeremie Bela and Jordan Graham are further wide options for Lee Bowyer to call upon, if and when required. Additionally, Bowyer has decent options in central midfield, alongside Juninho Bacuna, with Ivan Sunjic and Gary Gardner offering steel, while Jordan James and Taylor Richards provide further creativity.

At the back, the physical presence and long throws of Marc Roberts remain a key tentpole for this Birmingham City team. Full-backs, Maxime Colin and Kristian Pedersen can be very sturdy, strong performers at Championship level on their day. Additionally, youngster, Nico Gordon, has impressed since coming into the side recently and is a hint towards a potential brighter future at St Andrew’s.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Birmingham City are likely to be more positive in their approach than they were at the CBS Arena back in November, this is not least because of their shortage of defenders and an injury to their first-choice goalkeeper, Neil Etheridge. Nonetheless, they are likely to want to break up the flow of the game to knock Coventry City out of their rhythm, as they look to turn this into the scrap they will feel they are better suited to.

First of all, this will be a test of the Sky Blues’ temperament to be able to rise above any provocation they may encounter – which is something that quite a few in the team appear to struggle with. The next test will be in not only imposing their game on Birmingham City but doing so in a manner that leads to chances and goals.

What worked so well against Fulham may not in this game. Whereas Coventry City were able to play with space ahead of them at Craven Cottage on Sunday, similar opportunities may not present themselves here. As mentioned earlier in this preview, getting bodies around Viktor Gyokeres is likely to be especially important as the Swede’s effectiveness may be limited if he ends up getting marked by two or three Birmingham players and has little of the pitch to run into.

For all of Birmingham City’s off-field difficulties, they retain a handful of players that can win them games, even if the overall performance level is not great. From Lyle Taylor to Scott Hogan up front, to Juninho Bacuna and Onel Hernandez slightly further back, it would be a danger to underestimate this Blues outfit.

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