After coming away from a testy trip to Tottenham with top spot in the Premier League intact, Manchester United look to keep up their fine home form as they host struggling Birmingham City on Saturday.
United went down to ten men almost 15 minutes from time when Rafael da Silva was given his marching orders for a second yellow, but as has been the case many times throughout the season, their resilience saw them through safely to the end of the 0-0 draw.
With Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea all scoring wins against lesser competition on the weekend, United’s lead at the top was dented. Coming into this weekend’s clash against Alex McLeish’s side, United have 45 points from 20 matches, with City holding the same number of points with two more games played and an inferior goal difference. Arsenal are now two points behind with one more game played, with Chelsea seven back with one more played, and Tottenham eight back with one more played.
City face a tough Saturday evening clash at Aston Villa, who’ll be sporting a shiny new signing in Darren Bent, so three points in their afternoon clash against Birmingham could see United quickly reclaim the ground that was given up last weekend.
The odds are certainly in favor of United doing their part to make that happen. A 2-1 win over Stoke City a little over a fortnight ago was United’s 10th in 11 home league matches this season, and they’ve now taken 31 of a possible 33 points at home this season, five more than Chelsea’s 26.
While their home mark this season is almost impeccable, United’s home mark in recent times against Birmingham goes one step further, as they boast six wins in six tries in the Premier League era. If the visitors are able to score this weekend, it’ll be their first Premier League goal at Old Trafford, as United have outscored Birmingham 12-0 in those previous six wins.
After a solid ninth-place finish last season and a busy summer, it looked like Birmingham had the potential to make a move into the top seven or eight this season like Sunderland and Bolton have. However, they find themselves battling for survival instead of another high finish, as they come to Old Trafford in 16th place, only one point ahead of 18th-placed Wigan and just three clear of last-placed West Ham.
Birmingham actually have the same amount of defeats as Chelsea (six), but they also have the same amount of wins as West Ham (four), with their 11 draws being the culprit for their current placement in the table. In 10 away league matches, they’ve lost only four times – the same amount of away defeats Tottenham have and one less than Chelsea – but there’s only one win and five draws to show for the other results.
That being said, in their draw-filled campaign, there are several impressive results, including one that could provide Birmingham with a little confidence boost ahead of this weekend. There’s a home win against Chelsea, an away draw against City, and home draws against Tottenham, Liverpool, and United.
That 1-1 draw at St. Andrew’s on Dec. 28 is no doubt still fresh in the mind of both teams, and you can bank on it giving United a little extra incentive to wrap up the three points and wrap them up early. In that encounter, United took the lead through Dimitar Berbatov shortly before the hour mark and should have had even more, but their inability to finish the game off proved costly as Lee Bowyer equalized in the 89th minute. Controversial as the goal was, United shouldn’t have been in a position to be pegged back at the end, and it’s safe to say that Sir Alex Ferguson will send his starting XI out with the full intention of not repeating that.
It greatly helps United’s cause that they’ll have Nani in the fold this time around, as his absence at St. Andrew’s was clearly felt and seen.
Birmingham aren’t rife with attacking threats, or to be more precise, the threats that they have haven’t consistently produced this season, thus their continued search for a new striker. So, Rafael’s absence likely won’t be felt nearly as much as it might be if he’s ruled out for next Tuesday’s visit to Blackpool. United have been at their sharpest defensively at home, and that should continue this weekend.
It’s imperative for United to start fast and keep that positive momentum going, because allowing Birmingham to stay in the game longer than they should could have some serious consequences as it did a few weeks ago. More than that, being able to seal the deal relatively early could allow some key players to earn a little rest with the quick turnaround in mind.
It hasn’t been often this season that United have made things look easy, but we are due to see such a performance, and an early goal can set the way for it, a la Blackburn. Of course, given what we’ve seen this season, we should tread lightly with our expectations performance-wise, but with that quick turnaround to the Blackpool match, it’d be ideal to see a two or three-goal lead, at the very least, by the time the 70-minute mark rolls around.
But in the end, whether it’s done the easy way or the hard way, it’ll be another three points for United.
Prediction: 2-0 United