By Matt Fortune
Arsenal could be eight points clear at the top of the Premier League by 3 o'clock on Saturday afternoon. That is if they overcome a Birmingham side that became only the second team to leave Emirates Stadium with a point a little over a month ago.
The Gunners face Birmingham City on the back of five straight league wins and in bouyant mood following a commanding, if frustrating, night against AC Milan on Wednesday in the Champions League. Fatigue could certainly be a factor. Arsène Wenger though has a happy history at St Andrews - three wins from four attempts.
Alex McLeish would likely wish to boast a similar record. However since taking over from Steve Bruce in November, the Scot has won only once on home soil .
Ahead of Saturday's match we spoke to Colin Tattum of the
Birmingham Mail for his view on the impact of Alex McLeish, new
signing James McFadden, the reasons why Birmingham can stay up and
drawing at the Emirates.
STORY SO FAR
"I don't think anyone can call which way the season will fall for Birmingham because on their day they can punch above their weight, particularly against the top sides in the league. But they haven't quite got the results when they have needed them, so they find themselves in the predicament that they are now. It will be touch and go for them. You never quite know what you are going to get from them. In terms of their endeavour and work rate, that is never found wanting but it's the technical and creative aspect that are.
"These so called must-wins games against teams in the bottom part of the table, they have had problems with of late - draws at home to Fulham and Reading plus away at Derby. They have had the chances to win these games but it hasn't gone for them and they haven't found that clinical touch which makes all the difference when you're scrapping away at the foot of the Premier League."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"The thing with Alex McLeish is that he is very meticulous, very thorough. In training it's all very structured and you can see from the way the team is lined up that they all know their jobs, the pattern of play and what is expected of them. I wouldn't say it's rigid but it is measured and controlled the way they play now. That stood him in good stead with the Scottish national team which in some ways is similar to Birmingham. They are underdogs and surprise you when they are not expected to do anything. That was the thing in Scotland when he wasn't picking from such a great talent pool. He has given them confidence to go out there and express themselves, told them not be afraid and it has been a very refreshing time for them. Under Steve Bruce, after six-years, perhaps it was going a bit stale but McLeish has come in and considering the constraints he has, he has done a decent job with more to come if they can stay up."
"James McFadden was quite a predictable signing because of the Scottish connection and he has said that is why he came here. He had his best game at West Ham last time out. The thing is that he is not a striker per say as he can float about a bit and be creative as well and I think McLeish is still looking for that goal scorer. He bought McFadden in for a bit more creation in the danger areas. I'd expect he is looking for someone like Mikael Forssell, Gary O'Connor or perhaps the Argentinean they have got in on loan, Mauro Zarate, to fire at the back end of the season. They need that inspiration in front of goal."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"In terms of desire and honesty, the whole side is second to none. Plus McLeish has got that experience at the top level and that can be brought to bear and passed on to the team. The players, I don't think, genuinely believe that they are as bad as their league position. The main thing is that they have conceded goals that are easily avoidable. That is the fine line, and if they can cut that out and keep their concentration for 90 minutes then they will be just about safe."
"The problem has been, and the case has been argued that, Birmingham are a better side away from home than they actually are at St Andrews. Their approach doesn't alter a great deal but when Arsenal come to down they won't open up and try to take them on. The manager will look for the front two to push on and make a nuisance of themselves. He will look for the full-backs to get forward a bit more at home and look towards someone like Olivier Kapo to have free reign to weave some magic where it will hurt the opposition.
He has the enviable choice of everyone fit. I can't imagine the team being too much different from that which drew at West Ham. I suspect that Kapo will come in for Gary McSheffrey. He loves the big stage and is a big game player. It be more of the same but they do need a big result to kick start themselves so whether that comes on Saturday, we will have to wait and see."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"They rode their luck and maybe they caught Arsenal not firing on all cylinders. But they did the same up at Liverpool and should have beaten Chelsea at St Andrews a few weeks back. They do raise themselves for the better teams and they enjoy it because there is no pressure. They will try to impress there but a hallmark is that they will be organised and they need to keep that going in the ones that really matter against the Wigans and Fulhams etc."