Manchester United arrive in Birmingham for the second fixture of a busy week in high spirits. Top of the Premier League, unbeaten and with rivals dropping points, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team aims to capitalise on a profitable period. Yet, former Red Ben Foster stands in the way of a just a second Premier League win on the road this season.
Ferguson should welcome back both Nani and Darren Fletcher to the traveling party, with the pair missing United’s comfortable win over Sunderland on Sunday. The Portuguese has a minor hip complaint while Fletcher is suffering with a heavy cold. However, United will be without winger Park Ji-Sung who has departed for the Asian cup until February, while John O’Shea misses out.
With Birmingham now an established Premier League outfit United can expect a tough fixture, although the Brummies have not emerged victorious from the tie since 1978. Still, Foster has gone some way to re-establishing his reputation following a difficult spell at Old Trafford in the past two years.
“Going down there is always a difficult place to go to,” said Ferguson. “They have always had a strong home record and are difficult to beat on their own ground.”
In Park’s absence Ferguson is likely to retain veteran Ryan Giggs, although Gabriel Obertan and Bébé remain options despite the pair’s limited activity at the top-level so far this season.
Indeed, Park’s absence – despite his many critics – will be keenly felt by United, with Ferguson retaining so few top class options in wide areas. Against a stubborn Birmingham City outfit, United’s lack of width could tell unless Wayne Rooney discovers not only his best form, but his shooting boots too.
“Wayne had a couple of tries against Sunderland,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“He was very unlucky with the chip and there were a couple of shots saved by the goalkeeper. He is getting there. The important thing is he is playing well. That is refreshing.”
However, Rooney is yet to score from open play this season – and not since 21 March – although the former Everton striker has played a noticeably deeper role in recent games. With United’s record on the road poor – just one win from seven Premier League games this season – Rooney might be crucial in turning around the record.
Indeed, there could hardly be a better time for United to win away from Old Trafford with Chelsea losing at the Emirates on Monday night. Rooney might just see the St Andrews fixture as an ideal moment to break his duck and fire the Reds nine points clear of Chelsea.
However, legend Giggs has warned against complacency creeping into United’s game despite the Reds’ outstanding recent form, which translated into a flowing performance against Steve Bruce’s Sunderland.
“You are obviously wary because of the way the league has been this year,” said Giggs.
“Anyone can beat anyone. We are thankful we remain unbeaten and confidence is high. But we realise that nothing can be taken for granted. It is a tough league and we need to be at our best in every game.
“We hope to get better in the second half of the season. Our form over the last few weeks has been really good. We looked sharp against Arsenal and Blackburn, and it was the same against Sunderland.
“Some of the play we produced, the one-touch passing and the movement, was great to be involved in.”
United’s performance in the first half against Sunderland was arguably the finest of the season – including the recent thrashing of Blackburn Rovers. Yet United, comfortable at 2-0 on the hour, eased off significantly. Whether complacency or expediency it is unlikely Birmingham will offer the visitors a similar level of comfort in front of the St Andrews’ crowd.
Meanwhile, Alex McCleish welcomes back former Arsenal star Alexander Hleb for United’s visit. The Belarusian has suffered with a hamstring complaint. McCleish, who played under Ferguson at Aberdeen in the 1980s, will also have Liam Ridgewell for the leaders’ visit.
Birmingham – 442 – Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson, Bowyer, Ferguson, Hleb; Jerome, Zigic. Subs from: Taylor, Derbyshire, Michel, Parnaby, Phillips, Gardner, Beausejour, Murphy, Fahey
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Carrick, Kuzszazk, Amos, Fabio da Silva, Evans, Smalling, O’Shea, Brown, Gibson, Obertan, Bébé, Hernández, Macheda, Owen.
Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Mike Cairns & Ron Ganfield
Fourth official: Anthony Taylor
Birmingham – DWDWDL
United – WWLDWW