It has been a week of advanced calculus for Coventry City fans as they try and ascertain the precise scenarios that would see the club finish the season in the play-offs. Sitting in 5th-place, clear of the teams below them by one point and with key top six rivals seeing their games in hand wiped out by midweek defeats, things have become simple for the Sky Blues, win their two remaining games and they will be in the play-offs.
It may be in Coventry City’s hands now, but closing them to grasp that opportunity is the hard part. This final home game of the season, against Birmingham City, is the most important one to win as it will ensure that the Sky Blues head into the final day still in control of their own fate. In front of a sell-out CBS Arena crowd against a fellow West Midlands side, this is the definitive sink or swim moment of Coventry’s season.
While key players such as Kasey Palmer, Callum O’Hare and Ben Sheaf look set to miss out even if Coventry City make the play-offs, Mark Robins’ hand has been bolstered over the last week with Jamie Allen returning, Liam Kelly lasting a 90-minute match and the defence showing it can cope without Kyle McFadzean in the starting line-up. The manager has the option to stick with a winning team or to make a handful of changes depending on how he views the threat of Birmingham City.
Last week’s demotion of Kyle McFadzean from the starting XI seemed to be with Reading’s pace on the break in mind, while Birmingham City also have a couple of quick players, that their central striking options are one from a big and immobile duo Lukas Jutkiewicz and Troy Deeney provides a convincing argument to restore McFadzean to the heart of the defence. That would see Jonathan Panzo drop out of the back three, with Luke McNally and Callum Doyle tasked with keeping a handle on the Blues’ quicker wide players.
At wing-back, Mark Robins faces a tough call as to what is his preferred pairing once squad rotation is taken out as a factor. The experience of Jake Bidwell and Fankaty Dabo is tempting ahead of a pressure game, but the team could probably do with the dynamism that at least one of Josh Wilson-Esbrand and Brooke Norton-Cuffy can provide. With Bidwell looking the more dependable performer out of the Sky Blues’ experienced wing-back options, he may get the nod here, with Brooke Norton-Cuffy providing the flasher stuff on the other side.
In central midfield, the decision is probably between Josh Eccles and Jamie Allen, with Gustavo Hamer the star and Liam Kelly showing last week the importance of the cool head he can provide. While Eccles produced a decisive moment of skill leading up to the opening goal, it was a pretty quiet performance overall in a game where the team needed a little more dynamism from midfield than he appears able to provide. That should see Allen come into the starting line-up, unless Mark Robins wants to keep the player as fresh as possible ahead of a Middlesbrough game where the midfielder’s industriousness could prove even more valuable in.
Last Time We Met
It was the beginning of the turnaround for Coventry City as they dug out a clean sheet and a point on the road at St Andrew’s back in September. In a game between two pretty limited teams, the only excitement came when Gustavo Hamer caught himself in a tussle with Birmingham City’s Hannibal Mejbri, getting himself sent off for the second time in the season’s opening seven games.
The Manager – John Eustace
It has been a reasonably impressive first year in Football League management for John Eustace as he took his glowing coaching reputation into one of English football’s toughest jobs. While he has been able to call on some pretty talented individuals, Eustace has had to work hard to make sense of a squad that has been stitched together with some completely over-the-hill players and completely untested youngsters. If Birmingham City weren’t in a complete mess off-the-pitch, there might some optimism that their young coach might be able to build on a solid campaign next year.
Having forged a reputation in the early part of his coaching career as someone with a preference to play dominant, passing football, John Eustace has had to adapt to his available resources at St Andrew’s. With a team with quite a lot of slow, physical footballers, the manager has had to find a way to avoid exposing their weaknesses while providing a platform for more technical footballers to make an impact. When it has worked, it has worked well, focusing on a counter-attacking style, when it hasn’t worked, it has been pretty ugly to watch. There is certainly potential for the Blues to be thorny opponents for Coventry City.
Who To Look Out For?
In Tahith Chong and Reda Khadra, Birmingham City have two skilful and quick attacking players who could cause Coventry City big issues on the counter-attack. Chong has the ability to carry the ball long distances with his pace before beating opponents in tight areas, while Khadra is a very energetic dribbler who can be similarly difficult to contain in one-versus-one battles. Birmingham’s game-plan is clearly going to be based around trying to get them to ran at a stretched Sky Blues back-line whenever possible.
Krystian Bielik in central midfield has played an important role for Birmingham City in protecting the defence, while also offering some quality on the ball. The Poland international also provides the platform for a more technical midfield partner to shine, with the skilful box-to-box player, Juninho Bacuna, tending to be that player, with the tenacious, yet dynamic, Manchester United loanee Hannibal Mejbri tending to be one of the first options from the bench.
In Alfie Chang, Jordan James, and Jobe Bellingham, John Eustace has been able to throw in some talented academy youngsters into the deep-end at times this season to good effect. The Blues manager may be of a mind to hand them a start in this game over more experienced players who may not be at the club next year as he starts to plan ahead for next season.
At the back, loanee defenders Dion Sanderson and Auston Trusty have provided Birmingham City with a good balance between physicality and technical ability in defence. However, with Sanderson injured lately, John Eustace has opted for the outright physicality and experience of Marc Roberts and Kevin Long, with the latter having cost the team a point at home to Blackpool last week with a pretty poor attempt at playing out from the back. That said, if Blues can get their noses in front – perhaps with crosses into target-man Lukas Jutkiewicz – Roberts and Long will be happy sitting deep and trying to crowd Viktor Gyokeres out from the game.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
It would be surprising if Birmingham City set up in any other manner but to stay in their defensive shape as much as possible and look to hit Coventry City on the counter-attack or nick something with long throws or set-pieces. The Sky Blues are going to have to be patient here, and may have to do a better job at taking their chances than they did last week against Reading, where some high-profile misses from Viktor Gyokeres made the game tougher than it needed to be.
Viktor Gyokeres is unlikely to enjoy the kind of opportunities that Reading gave him last week to isolate their defenders and run at them in space with the ball, and there is a concern that his tendency to float out wide looking for room to start his trademark runs could rob Coventry City of the presence in the box they may need in this game. Additionally, with Gustavo Hamer playing an ever more important role in directly scoring and creating goals by playing further forward, the deeper midfielders, wing-backs, and even centre-backs will need to step up to move the ball around quickly and purposefully to open up space for Gyokeres and Hamer to devastate in the Birmingham penalty area.
With the focus being on breaking Birmingham City down, Coventry City will have to be wary of their threat on the break. Wingers Reda Khadra and Tahith Chong are among the best wide players in the Championship and can be very hard to stop when they’re in full flow and could really stretch the Sky Blues back-line if they can catch them on the turn. Switch off and this game could get away from Coventry.
1 thought on “Preview: Birmingham City”
Really enjoyed reading your work all season – thanks!