West Ham v Birmingham, Premier League, February 6, 2011
The wounds are still raw from West Hamâ€™s Carling Cup semi-final second-leg capitulation at St Andrewâ€™s, when the Hammers surrendered a 3-1 aggregate advantage to crash out in extra-time.
Avram Grantâ€™s impressive cup record was restored when Nottingham Forest were beaten 3-2 at the Boleyn Ground, Victor Obinnaâ€™s hat-trick setting up an FA Cup fifth-round home tie with Burnley. That was followed by accomplished performance at both ends of the pitch in the 3-1 at Blackpool lastÂ Wednesday, whichÂ was enough to lift West Ham off the bottom of the Premier League. Just behind Birmingham on goal difference.
Iron’s forward Victor Obinna was the star of the show for the second successive game with a brace; his second clear evidence of his boosted confidence at the young striker lashed home a left-footed beauty form 20-yards out. With Robbie Keane grabbing his first goal for the club in a largely one-chance-one-goal debut, West Ham experienced almost the surreal situation of having virtually secured the win in the first forty-five.
Even with spate of defensive problems at Bloomfield Park, the usuallyÂ ricketyÂ West Ham backline stood firm. Matthew Upson was replaced by Danny Gabbidon, who was then replaced by Winston Reid after only 33 minutes, having pulled a hamstring. But their absences, which could extend for the visit of Birmingham, was compensation for by a steadfast shift from the improving James Tomkins, while Robert Green looked sure of himself between the sticks.
The last few days have seen the Upton Park boo-boys shut-up.
Avram Grant, so long cut as a waste of space by many commentators and fans alike, now has a sliver of momentum and breathing space. Few column inches have showered any praise on the Israeli for achieving back-to-back wins as well as negotiating some interesting winter signings, but should West Ham turn over the Blues this weekend, credit may start to flow to most mostÂ beleagueredÂ boss in the league.
The fact remains that if West Ham stay up this season – an objective which has never looked more realistic this season – that would be a result which should be rejoiced. Lest we forget that just under a year ago the Hammers were facing a financial black hole after their Icelandic owners went bust and Sheffield United won a mega-million pounds lawsuit in the Carlos Tevez case. So bad was the situation at Upton Park that new owner David Sullivan admitted when buying the Irons “we’re taking over an incredibly bad situation. We wouldn’t buy this club at all if it wasn’t West Ham. It makes no sense commercially.”
West Ham now look like a team with options. At least up-front that is.
Against the Tangerines the Hammers lined up with an aggressive 4-3-3 formation. Packing with industrious (and sometimes spoiling)Â midfieldersÂ Gary O’Neil, Mark Noble and Scott Parker, Grant then unleashed a three-pronged attack of Keane, Obinna and Frederic Piquionne. With Demba Ba, Carlton Cole, Freddie Sears, Junior Stanislavs andÂ JulianÂ Faubert – to name but a few – all looking to get into the starting eleven, there is suddenly a healthy competition for places in the Eastenders camp.
Birmingham, despite their lowly position on the verge of entering the drop-zone, can also lay claim to some positives. Aside from knowing they beat West Ham just a few weeks ago in the cup, the Blues then showed character to rally to a 3-2 FA Cup win over Coventry before they rallied again against Manchester City to earn a point in their last league match.
The record books thus show Birmingham with a three game unbeaten streak, including two victories. So that should put them in good stead for the trip to London, right? Not necessarily.
Cynics can argue that Birmingham have got out of jail in their last two games, not so much due to their ownÂ endeavourÂ but rather due to the failings of others. Championship Coventry, after playing a brilliant forty-five minutes, simply ran out of puff and heart against the Premier Leaguers.Â Similarly, the point against City had more to do with a fortunate late penalty decision than any incredible fightback display against Roberto Mancini’s well-below-par men.
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 just six goals, is Craig Gardener. The much maligned beanpole Nikola Zigic then has five, while the pretty-appalling Cameron Jerome comes in third spot with just three strikes to his name.
David Bentley’s arrival has added a bit more quality to the Birmingham team, although doubts linger that the Spurs loanee may beÂ reducedÂ to simply pinging long balls at Zigic for the remainder of the season as the Blues look bereft of any guile. Obafemi Martins may also add some more sparkle to the Midlanders, although again doubts linger as the Nigerian looks far from being the goal-scoring machine needed to arrest Birmingham’s decline this season.
Predicting the outcome leads one straight to the book of cliches.
This is an ultimate six-pointer. Form can go out the window. It’s all about who has more fight on the day. Winning ugly is still winning. Etc… and so on.
But getting off the fence to call the coin-flip contest, West Ham, with their legions of new attacking options, seem theÂ likelierÂ team to emerge with all three points.
101gg predicts: West Ham 2 – Birmingham 1