The games just keep coming for Fulham at the moment. After the glamour of Shakhtar Donetsk, a busy Birmingham side will be hoping to catch us a little cold at the Cottage on Sunday. Alex McLeish will be well aware of the threat Fulham will pose to a Blues side that has been impressive in patches on their return to the top flight this year as he was at the game last night and has previously spoken about wanting to emulate what Fulham have achieved under Roy Hodgson.
Just after Christmas, all the buzz was about McLeish and how he’d turned Birmingham into a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League. The Blues might have started the season with fairly prosaic ambitions – avoiding the kind of yo-yo existence between the top flight and the Championship that has characterised their recent years – but some shrewd transfer dealings saw McLeish put together a steady side. Lee Bowyer, who has popped up to score a few crucial goals this season (including the winner against Fulham at St. Andrew’s), looks an absolute steal on a free transfer from West Ham and Barry Ferguson’s made a far better fist of the English game than his first effort south of the border.
The real revelations, though, were Birmingham’s pair of Championship defenders. Roger Johnson’s arrival from Cardiff City for £5m raised a few eyebrows, even if the man himself and his former team-mates had no doubts about his ability to step up. Johnson’s been outstanding at the heart of the Birmingham defence and his importance to McLeish’s set-up is shown by the fact that he’s started every single league game to date. He has forged an almost impregnable partnership with Scott Dann, rumoured to have cost around £3.5m up front from Coventry in the summer, and those two have hardly put a foot wrong. Considering that conceding too many goals is the hallmark of a team that will go down, being so miserly at the back is vital to securing Premier League football.
Just as crucial to Birmingham’s defensive stability has been the performances of on-loan goalkeeper Joe Hart, who was harshly cast aside by Manchester City after Shay Given signed from Newcastle. Quite how Hart hasn’t forced himself more firmly into the England reckoning after all the injuries, contract negotiations and transfer rumours that have disrupted David James’ season at Portsmouth, is beyond me. Hart’s heroics in goal were a key factor in sustaining an almost unbelievable 15-match unbeaten run, which included draws with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Beating England’s most impressive keeper will be no easy task.
It would be wrong to suggest that Birmingham are just a dour, well-drilled side. They possess plenty of quality in midfield with great things expected of the highly-rated Spaniard, Michel, who arrived from Sporting Gijon in the summer. The mercurial James McFadden, who can drift deceptively in and out of games before making his mark, will also need to be watched carefully. Sebastien Larsson, a scorer against Fulham in recent seasons, has unfathomably been overlooked in a struggling Swedish national side of late but can cause problems having notched four goals already this term.
Birmingham have struggled to score goals this season but there are blessed with plenty of striking talent. Cameron Jerome scored a spectacular goal at Anfield in November and snaffled another one against Manchester United in January – and you certainly don’t want to give him too much of a sight of goal. Christian Benitez might have struggled to adjust to both the pace and physical nature of the Premier League but he’ll be a lively customer up front and, just in case you’d forgotten, Kevin Phillips’ timely brace the other week to beat Wolves showed that he’s not lost the killer instinct in front of goal.
How Fulham respond after their European high will be particuarly interesting. Such a hard taskmaster as Hodgson will not tolerate any slacking and it will be interesting to see whether he tweaks a formation that worked so successfully on Thursday night. His main choice will be whether to move Zoltan Gera from the advanced position in ‘the hole’ where he clearly thrives in favour of giving Bobby Zamora a more orthodox partner up front. The only other change should see Nicky Shorey replace Stephen Kelly at left back.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Greening, Riise, Nevland, Okaka, Elm.