Birmingham v Arsenal, Premier League, January 1, 2011
Think Birmingham versus Arsenal and one image immediately comes to mind.
Almost 24 months ago the Gunners travelled to St Andrews in a match which has since become seminal in recent drought years of the Arsene Wenger reign. Back in February 2008 the Gunners were then top of the Premier League table and the title was theirs to lose. And then everything imploded.
Martin Taylor’s brutal tackle on Eduardo da Silva was the catalyst. James McFadden’s penalty in the 90th minute was gut-wrenching. And William Gallas’ famous strop on the pitch came to signify how Arsenal’s confidence was sapped in an instant.
When people nowadays refer to Arsenal’s mental instability, the go-to moment was that match. Birmingham had upset the Gunners’ rhythm and they’ve been struggling to get it back ever since.
As the wheel now comes full circle Arsenal have an incredible moment for redemption. Win at Birmingham, and belief will be boosted that Arsenal can finally reclaim the championship title. Not only will they continue to close the gap on Manchesters United and City, but they can lay down a marker showing their new and improved psychological fortitude.
Winning will also quickly move on the conversation from Arsenal’s disappointing 2-2 draw at Wigan. Playing against ten men and with under ten minutes of the match to see out, Arsenal would have liked to have thought that the three points were in the bag at the DW Stadium. Sebastian Squillaci’s headed own goal, however, saw two massive points in the title race fall painfully down the wayside.
Squillaci’s own goal was galling on a more serious level than just the final 2-all scoreline. Arsenalâ€™s set-piece weakness were again on full view. The telling stat which will send shivers down the Arsenal faithful’s spines is that 50% of the goals they’ve conceded this season have come from dead-balls. Defending is without question Arsenal’s Achilles heel, and one that is likely to continue to prove damaging until Wenger boosts his backline options.
Arsenal’s defensive frailties can also be evidence with regard to their clean sheets record. The Gunners last shut out was against Wolves on November 10th. Since they’ve conceded in 15 of the 19 games. Scoring two goals away from home should be enough to win you a game, especially against a team in the lower half of the table. Yet it wasn’t.
The good news is that Arsenal can still turn things around in a big way. If the Gunners were to win at Birmingham and then against Manchester City in their following game, they will have garnered 10 points from 12 over the Christmas period – which would be good going by anyone’s standards.
Looking to achieve those precious three points, Wenger may likely rotate his squad. Nasri, Walcott and Wilshere were all reduced to the subs bench against Wigan and, having received a momentary breather, the triumvirate could all come back into the starting eleven on Saturday. Johan Djourou, who was also relegated to the bench for Squillaci against the Latics, may also be recalled.
On those set to miss out, question marks still prevail over Arshavin and Bendtner. Yes, both stars scored against Wigan, but nagging doubts over the pairs overall work-rate, contributions and impact on the team remain. Few are convinced that either the Russian or the Dane are on top form, and should they be taken out the team it would suggest that Wenger thinks the same.
Looking to inject a bit of perspective however, while Arsenal slump Birmingham struggle.
Alex McLeish’s men sit dangerously in 17th spot in the division, keeping their heads just above the relegation zone on goal difference. However, while the maxim says the table never lies, Birmingham can argue their current league position is slightly skewed after the Midlanders had matches with Newcastle and Everton snowed off in December. With fixtures now stockpiled for later in the year, Birmingham remain slightly more confident of their survival expectations.
Nevertheless, recent results have been far from amazing. With just one win in their last five games, the Blues have slipped further and further down the league. Lee Bowyer’s controversial last-gasp equaliser against Manchester United may have maintained the club’s only-once-beaten home record this year, but the problem for Birmingham is that while they have made themselves a tough team to turn over, winning matches has proven equally difficult.
In that regard, a quick glance at Birmingham’s goalscoring charts speaks volumes. Top of the tree, with a poultry five goals, is Craig Gardener. The much maligned beanpole Nikola Zigic then comes in second with four goals, while Cameron Jerome comes in third spot with just three strikes to his name.
Arsenal, with their defensive problems so exposed would be foolish however to think that Birmingham cannot breach their rearguard on New Year’s day. Specifically Birmingham have achieved most of their success this season from scoring from set-plays, which is a tactic that Arsenal will have problems trying to combat. In short, if Birmingham can deliver the right ball to the likes of Zigic, Arsenal will be in all sorts of troubles.
Many will want the Londoners to win on Saturday, as such a result will concertina the league at both ends. It will leave Arsenal hot-on-the-heels of the pacesetters, while Birmingham will be sucked even deeper into the relegation scrap. Which, from a neutral’s perspective, is all rather exciting.
But with three of the last five meetings between these sides ending in stalemates, perhaps the safest bet is gambling on a score draw once again.
101gg predicts: Birmingham 2 – Arsenal 2