We're less than 24 hours away from what could be either the highlight or the lowlight of the year. The Second City Derby, Aston Villa vs. Birmingham City. Villa have won six running, outscoring City 13-6 during that stretch. It equals Villa's longest run of dominance in the series, the last six match winning streak coming between 1987 and 1993. Sounds promising, no?
Unfortunately the past six fixtures have absolutely no bearing on tomorrow's game. And looking at how things have gone to this point, there's a great deal of cause for concern. Birmingham City have been steadily improving for a few years now and they had themselves quite a transfer season, landing playmaking midfielder Alexander Hleb and combination missing link/striker Nikola Zigic. Birmingham haven't been beating clubs they aren't supposed to, but they've looked impressive against teams on a similar plane, somehow managing to score twice against Sunderland in a 2-2 draw and keeping Blackpool off the board in a 2-0 win. They haven't faced the toughest of schedules to this point, but they've taken care of business for the most part and they'll be facing a Villa squad with some key injuries and major question marks.
One positive for Villa is the news that Luke Young has been declared fit for this game (making me look like an idiot, so thanks Luke) and is expected to get the start at right back. Seeing as how Habib Beye has been atrocious and it might not be best for Eric Lichaj to make his starting debut in this particular fixture, it can't be overstated what a boost for Villa it would be for Young to be named to the starting XI. It will be interesting to see who joins him on the back line; Warnock is mostly a given but the center of the defense is a question mark. Richard Dunne has been poor for much of the season but showed signs of his old form against Sunderland, while Carlos Cuellar is coming off a Man-of-the-Match performance against Burnley in Wednesday's Carling Cup fixture. All the while there is James Collins and his dependable quality. I think I would prefer to see Cuellar and Collins, but I'd expect we see Dunne as Houllier is known to favor experience in games of this magnitude.
Marc Albrighton will be out of the squad due to his red card against Burnley and Petrov and Agbonlahor are still injured, making the rest of the team a bit easier to sort out. I would wager we'll see Sidwell and Reo-Coker in the middle, Ireland in the withdrawn forward/attacking mid role, Heskey up top and Downing and Ashley Young on the wings. A Carew-Heskey pairing isn't necessarily out of the question, but it would be more than a bit of a surprise. Birmingham City are dealing with injury problems of their own, with summer signings Martin Jiranek and Jean Beausejour yet to play a game and out of the squad on Sunday.
This is typically where I'd attempt to offer some insight as to the tactical advantages either team might look to exploit, keys to the game and that sort of thing. In a game like this though, that seem largely pointless. Villa will come out attempting to do what they do, Birmingham City will come out attempting to do what they do. Things will be physical. There will be bookings. Play will likely be conservative until a goal is scored. Howard Webb will do something to piss off both sets of supporters. Ultimately it will either be a complete and total waxing or a low-scoring affair that has hearts in throats up to the very end. If Villa can put their stamp on the pace of play and score early, I'll be incredibly confident. They can punish teams that are looking to push forward, so it will be crucial to capitalize on any opportunities that come their way early. If we see something the like of which we have been all too accustomed as of late, with early chances being wasted and the run of play reversing course then Villa are in trouble. Emotion plays a huge part in games like these and any momentum going Birmingham's way could make things quite scary.
Pay close attention to Cameron Jerome and Nikola Zigic. They're the types of players that are capable of giving Villa's defense all sorts of trouble. Jerome is a big target forward in the Emile Heskey mode but with lesser hold-up ability and greater speed and quickness. If he can get into slightly wider areas and find himself marked by the full backs he can give Friedel fits. Zigic is obviously a threat in the air with his height, but he's also unexpectedly graceful and dangerous with the ball at his feet. The two have not played together often but Zigic has been working to get back to full fitness and word is he could start. If a playmaker of Alexander Hleb's quality is given these types of options, the defense must be sure to make them unavailable lest they be picked apart. At the other end, Villa as always have the superior wide players and if the better version of Emile Heskey shows up tomorrow they're a dangerous attacking unit indeed. Birmingham's defense is quality, but not quality enough to handle Villa's attack if it is firing in all cylinders.
I'm admittedly nervous about this game, I've said so here and elsewhere on numerous occasions. But Villa are the better side and have the advantage of playing at home. Last year's second contest was largely decided by which side were better able to keep their composure and it's entirely possible that we will see more of the same this time around. Assuming the game is not taking place in South Africa, Howard Webb is generally able to keep a fairly tight lid on things and seeing the usual chippiness of the Second City Derby I'd expect him to be quick with both the whistle and the book. (Take note of that, Mr. Warnock.) So much of this game is outside of talent and tactics that I'm resigned to pretty much holding my breath and hoping.