Birmingham City v Manchester United, Premier League, January 9, 2010
(posted by Tom Ratchford)
For as long as Sir Alex Ferguson has been winning trophies at Manchester United, journalists have waited like vultures for any scraps of evidence that his side are not the current commanders of English football their trophy haul of the two decades suggest. Ferguson conceding that United deserved to be beaten by League One opposition in the form of Leeds United last Sunday gave them something delicious to devour.
United have been in indifferent form this season, particularly on the road and now face a tricky trip to Birmingham as the doom-mongers wait in the wings once again. They have already suffered away defeats at the hands of Burnley, Liverpool, Chelsea and most recently Fulham. Aside of the battle at the Bridge, you would be hard pushed to argue that they deserved anything from these games and worryingly for Ferguson, they have failed to score in any of them. (It is 5/6 that there will be under 2.5 goals)
That said, in Wayne Rooney they have a player who has blossomed into fruition at just the right time. Sidelined at times during the Cristiano Ronaldo era, Rooney has fired in 14 league goals at the fulcrum of the United attack and single-handedly at time separates United from mediocrity. (Rooney is EVS to score anytime)
Antonio Valencia is another player who has risen to the fore of late. His strong, direct and pacey style have worried numerous defenders recently and with 4 goals in his last 7 league games has also helped to fill the void left by the former World Player of the Year. (Valencia is 7/1 to score the first goal)
Defensive instability had been a major factor in Unitedâ€™s indifferent form away from Old Trafford. Ferguson has been forced to use umpteen different back-four combinations this season, even converting to a back three on certain occasions. Defensive stalwart Rio Ferdinand (calf) has barely featured and John Oâ€™Sheaâ€™s (calf) consistency has also been sorely missed. United will at least be able to field a strong defensive unit for this match with Nemanja Vidic returning to partner the fit again Jonny Evans at the centre of a defence, flanked by Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra. (United are 6/5 to keep a clean sheet)
In contrast, Birmingham have built their most successful season in over 100 years in the top flight on a solid and settled defence. They boast the best home defence and have 6 clean sheets in 10 at St Andrews. (Birmingham are 9/2 to keep a clean sheet) Alex McLeishâ€™s shrewd summer acquisitions of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann have aided the Blues to 11 games unbeaten in the Premiership. Loanee Joe Hart has also been hugely influential in their success. The possible England first choice shot-stopper has produced a number of scintillating performances, notably in the recent 0-0 home draw with Chelsea. (It is 11/1 to be 0-0)
If there is an area in which Birmingham can improve then it is clearly in the last third of the pitch. They have amassed a miserly eight league goals at St Andrews, the lowest in the division. Lee Bowyer is the clubâ€™s top scorer with 5 goals (5/1 to score anytime) and Cameron Jerome (11/4 to score anytime) and Sebastian Larsson (20/1 to score first) have also chipped in with 4 each. At least Â£20 million of Carson Yeungâ€™s coffers are available to McLeish in the transfer window and attacking players will be the focus of his spending. A failed Â£9 million pound raid for Ryan Babel could inspire James McFadden in particular to find his shooting boots (Mcfadden is 12/1 to score first), whilst a similar fee pondered for Kenwyne Jones could spur the misfiring â€˜Chuchoâ€™ into form. (Christian Benitez is 8/1 to score first)
The fact that these two share the second best defensive record in the Premier League infers that this is unlikely to be a goal-fest. Ferguson will have read the riot act to his players last weekend and will be looking for an immediate response. Despite Birminghamâ€™s superb run, United have just enough in the last third to edge this encounter.
101predicts: Birmingham City 0 – Manchester United 1 (6/1)
Full match odds here.