So we’ve been told the last version of the Second City Derby took place on a crisp October day at a below capacity St. Andrews in the heart of England. But the scoreless draw between Villa and Blues that took place 16 games ago hardly stands out as anything more than just another physical Championship game where both teams spurned scoring opportunities and remained firmly planted at their respective opposite ends of the table.
Villa came in that game sixth and left in sixth. City came in 21st and remained 21st. And flipping through the calendar you’d see it was now going on 12 years since Blues beat Villa in league play. So I guess when the two met, it was a derby.
Villa had battled back into the promotion places by winning four of their last five games. But Villa fans were hardly convinced. A loss to Wolves just two matches prior to the derby left the faithful in a negative state of mind about Bruce’s tactics. Goals weren’t exactly flowing and a side bought to score goals seemed stuck going through the motions. The Second City derby did little to assuage concerns that Bruce was sending out the better side to absorb the opponent’s intent and grab something on the counter. Villa supporters left Small Heath wondering if their team could hold on to a precarious playoff position.
Fast forward and grabbing a new calendar, 2018’s first edition of the Second City Derby looks as if it will have the blood and thunder the first encounter sorely lacked. City are going nowhere fast and while they’re likely just good enough to survive a fairly dreadful group at the bottom of the Championship based on decent recent form - beating a Villa side on the ascendency will make their season. And Aston Villa finally look up for it. So what will be different this time around?
The first encounter saw both terms lose a striker - Isaac Vassell going off just before halftime and Jonathan Kodjia late in the second. Villa’s 4-4-1-1 sputtered. Adomah had cooled off, Onomah showed early signs of his subsequent struggles, and Robert Snodgrass looked unprepared. Fast forward and Robert Snodgrass has become one of Villa’s most important players. Jack Grealish looks a dynamic and creative threat in Steve Bruce’s retooled 4-1-4-1. Keinan Davis hit the woodwork in the first match and likely won’t feature up front, with Scott Hogan finding form. It’s likely that Birmingham City will try to frustrate Villa. Any gameplan short of taking it right at a Blues side with one of the worst goal differentials in the league would be abdication of duty by Bruce.
Losing 4-1 to Huddersfield in extra time in the FA Cup replay that took place this past week had to take a bit of wind out of Birmingham’s sails. Any side battling relegation away to a rival full of confidence will look to get any advantage they can find. Since playing a straight-out game of football looks unlikely, look for most of the nonsense typically associated with the Second City Derby coming from the travelling side. Steve Cotterill believed his side deserved all three points last time out and without a first choice LB to deal with Snodgrass down Villa’s right, containing Villa’s threat must be top of mind. They’ll look to stop Villa anyway, anyhow.
There is no reason given Villa’s recent displays that the Holte End and Villa faithful shouldn’t be fully behind the boys as they press on for automatic promotion. It’s been quite the turn of events for Villa since the season looked lost at Brentford on Boxing Day and fans should celebrate this revival and lift the squad. Birmingham fell short of its capacity back in October while Villa have opened the Trinity Road Upper for the occasion. Expect a lively derby Sunday!