The briefest of previews tonight as I’m already late for my prior engagement.
Birmingham will be a tough nut to crack this weeekend. Alex McLeish is an excellent manager, who was probably slightly unfortunate to see his Blues side relegated in the year when we pulled off our miraculous escape. This Birmingham team is certainly a lot more durable at the highest level of English football, as evidenced by their battling performance at Anfield, when they were robbed of victory by David Ngog’s penalty area antics.
McLeish has supplemented the squad that won promotion from the Championship last year wisely. Joe Hart, harshly elbowed sideways by the Middle Eastern millions at Manchester City, is a capable goalkeeper who might well be the long-term successor to David James between the sticks for England. Roger Johnson seems to have taken to Premier League football pretty well and the Blues will welcome back Barry Ferguson, who is making a better fist of English football second time around, from suspension. Birmingham will give Keith Fahey and striker Garry O’Connor late fitness tests.
The midfield definitely doesn’t lack bite with Lee Bowyer alongside Ferguson in the centre. There’s creativity there too with James McFadden, perhaps underused by both club and country, a constant threat and the underrated Sebastien Larsson – somehow missing from the Sweden side that failed to qualify for the World Cup in recent months – a man who scored on our last trip to St. Andrew’s when Roy Hodgson had a watching brief having just been confirmed as the permanent successor to Lawrie Sanchez.
Birmingham’s home form is something of a worry – the Blues have won just twice in six league games in front of their own fans. Scoring goals has been a problem in the Premier League, but Cameron Jerome’s screamer at Liverpool suggested that he’s got the ability to shine in the top flight. A side with the likes of McFadden, Larsson and the lively ‘Chuco’ Benitez – as Kevin Philips sits on the bench – certainly has the potential to trouble plenty of defences.
It remains to be seen how Fulham will line-up. Victories at St. Andrew’s are very rare – Mark Pembridge scored the last time we beat Birmingham away in the League Cup in 2004. Damien Duff might still be recovering from the Republic of Ireland’s traumatic World Cup exit in Paris on Wednesday, let alone playing 120 minutes. Danny Murphy from his knee injury to start in central midfield, although there are still doubts over whether Diomansy Kamara will have shaken off his ankle trouble in time.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Gera, Dempsey; Zamora, Kamara. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Smalling, Etuhu, Greening, Riise, Nevland.