Monday, February 28, 2011

What League Cup win means for Birmingham City

After their 2-1 League Cup defeat of heavily favoured Arsenal, it is fit and proper for Birmingham City to celebrate. Behind the opportunism of Obafemi Martins, the calamity of Wojcieh Szczesny & Laurent Koscielny and the Scots' management nous of Alex McLeish, the Blues have won their first silverware since the old Division Two (now League 1) title in 1995. In all probability this is the biggest win in club history and the first time the side have won the League Cup since 1963.

McLeish must take the much of the credit, just as Wenger cannot be totally absolved of blame. City last year finished ninth in the Premiership on re-entering the division after a year in the Championship. This was their highest league position for over forty years as veterans such as Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer combined with a breakout season from Joe Hart to vault the Brummies into the top half. When Hart returned to parent club Manchester City, McLeish replaced him with the able Ben Foster to maintain a defence now reputed for stinginess. By combining several senior Premiership players with the cream of the Championship - chiefly centre-back England aspirants Roger Johnson and Scott Dann - and classy loan signees Aliaksandr Hleb, David Bentley and Obafemi Martins, the rednut Scot has built a squad with both the strength to operate in Birmingham's long-held defensive posture, but also the outrageous talent needed to generate those moments of magic requried to upset the big boys. In theory, anyway. The Blues haven't done so this season and are only two points above the relegation zone and far from safety. Foster, though good enough to be England's second choice isn't of the same blue chip quality as Hart and has played well, but not in the same "I'm in the zone all year" fashion that earned Hart his current, deserved rep.

And if McLeish takes - quite correctly - the credit for masterminding this triumph, then he should also take a portion of the blame for the Brummie plight. The team has spent considerable, but not award-winning, sums in introducing reputed class to surround an uncompromising spine; an exercise which could not be judged as a complete success. Even so, this title ensures McLeish receives a passing grade for this season and also for no other reason than he seems like he's trying to make positive changes. During both summer and winter transfer windows, McLeish confirmed a plethora of new bodies were asked to relocate to St Andrews but were unwilling to journey to England's infamously grim second city. Though this triumph - like Tottenham's in 2007 - may provide a springboard for a more positive last third of the season, the victory could also distract them and further complicate avoiding the drop. The workmanlike approach favoured by several City players makes this an unlikely option but still possible.

Though it was injury, youth and inexperience which cost Arsenal this title - Szczesny is 20 and it's Koscielny's first year with the Gunners - Arsene Wenger now may be willing to consider the possibility that his constant refusal to reinforce a notably shaky backline could be a flawed policy. Walcott's pace and Fabregas' needle-threading aside, Szczesny is a debatable second-stringer - albeit one with enormous potential - who has played well in recent outings and although Koscielny cost a reported 8.45 million and came off his best performance of the year against Barcelona, several Emirates cognoscenti don't view him as either an adequate or long-term centre-back candidate. The problem between the two was a simple, (probable) one-time communication dysfunction which allowed Martins his "easiest goal". Though Wenger wasn't on the pitch and selected a team capable of defeating City, he was selecting from the best players he had available: no Mark Schwarzer or Gary Cahill - two players linked heavily with a move to North London during summer - among them.

For City, the results are curious. Entry into next year's Europa League and a trophy to end the drought that's plagued the club for long stretches of it's existence are wonderful results for the season but are not necessarily first priorities. Individually it's a great achievement, but one which would be tarnished should the club finish the year in the drop zone. Craig Gardner's season has been one of quality and lucky underpants and the man whose name must always be prefixed with "Giant Serbian striker", Giant Serbian striker Nikola Zigic, has since New Year found the net more regularly than in his disastrous first half-year in the midlands.

With the midseason arrival of Martins, the club has reasons for optimism beyond European jaunts next year but the path home isn't horrible: their next seven matches should be considered "winnable", coming against WBA, Everton, Bolton, Wigan, Blackburn and Sunderland before two big four clubs. Then follow Wolves, Newcastle and Fulham before finishing the year at Tottenham. There are several clubs with much harder runs home and the bounce hopefully provided by their Cup win should see them through. Although local rivals Wolves have picked up recently, as have West Ham, Wigan's terminal slide into the Championship coupled with West Brom's seeming inability to stay in the Premiership for more than one season at a time should mean that one relegation spot is available and an unwary Brum may yet fill it.

No comments:

Post a Comment