ESPN Soccernet Preview: Birmingham v Manchester United
FA Cup weekend brought little joy for either Birmingham or Manchester United. Both sides picked relatively strong sides for their matches, but neither got the results they wanted.
Birmingham escaped the City Ground with a 0-0 draw after Robert Earnshaw missed a Nottingham Forest penalty, leading to an unwanted replay with the Championship side. Manchester United, meanwhile, endured the humiliation of a defeat to old rivals Leeds United, the League One side described as "minnows" on their official website after the third-round draw was made.
Yet there is no doubt as to which side has the most to prove after the weekend. Alex McLeish admitted Birmingham were not at their best against Forest and that both sides had chances to win it; Sir Alex Ferguson said he was "shocked" by his team's performance and that only Antonio Valencia, a 57th-minute substitute, could be content with his showing.
The United boss vowed to wield the axe for the midweek Carling Cup tie with Manchester City as a result of the showing, and it remains to be seen whether the likes of Dimitar Berbatov will avoid being relegated to the bench after the snow put paid to that tie. Regardless, Ferguson will demand a reaction from his team and, while Birmingham boast home advantage and an 11-match unbeaten run, United's defeats to Aston Villa and Fulham in December mean anything less than an away victory will be considered a failure.
Birmingham player in focus: Christian Benitez. 'Chucho' has yet to fully show the extent of his potential in the Premier League since his summer move from Mexican side Santos Laguna and two goals in his first six months is a disappointing return for a striker who could cost the club around £8 million. Nonetheless, he gave Manchester United a scare on the opening day of the season as he went close to equalising after coming on as a late substitute and he gives Birmingham an attacking spark that could cause significant problems for a defence still unsettled by injury.
Manchester United player in focus: Antonio Valencia. The only Manchester United player to emerge from the 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Leeds in credit, Valencia has suffered in comparison to Cristiano Ronaldo since his summer move from Wigan but nonetheless provides a dangerous attacking outlet down the right flank. His direct running and regular crosses will provide a stern test for a Birmingham defence that has earned many plaudits this season.
Key battle: Barry Ferguson v Darren Fletcher. The Scotland outcast against the Scotland captain. The duo are both charged with providing bite to their midfields and both have seen their stock rise in recent months. Ferguson has regained his form since leaving Rangers after his misdemeanours on national team duty and finally looks to have come to terms with the Premier League after his underwhelming spell with Blackburn. Fletcher, meanwhile, did not feature in the FA Cup defeat to Leeds and, as with last year's Champions League final, his importance to the side was underlined in his absence.
Tactics: Birmingham may have seen an upturn in form since abandoning 4-5-1 in favour of 4-4-2, but much of their success has been about working hard as a team and ensuring they are difficult to break down. Their biggest defeat of the season was a 3-1 loss at Arsenal in mid-October and they have only conceded more than one goal in a match twice since that game. They have not conceded in their last three games and Manchester United are likely to look to the attacking guile of Antonio Valencia, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov as Joe Hart, Scott Dann and Roger Johnson continue to impress.
Quotes: Birmingham manager Alex McLeish on his desperation to upset his former Aberdeen boss: "The big one for all of us who have played for Sir Alex is to beat him - but you're not allowed. I've never done it. We lost 1-0 at Ibrox in the Champions League when I was manager of Rangers and then got thumped 3-0 down the road. I've lost two games since I've been here at Birmingham - both 1-0 - so I'm getting closer."
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson on the trip to St Andrew's: "They are now eighth in the league and have gone 11 games without defeat. It tells you that Birmingham had to improve as a team from last season. They have done that remarkably well. The general standard of the league has improved. That is why you are getting so many different results."
In the news: The snow has accounted for a large number of games in Britain of late, but it is hoped this one will go ahead. A Birmingham statement on Thursday read: "Club officials are extremely confident Saturday's home game against Manchester United (kick-off 5.30pm) will go ahead despite the recent inclement weather. Discussions have taken place with the local authorities, the emergency services and the Premier League and there is nothing to prevent the match taking place at present."
Birmingham team news: Stuart Parnaby and Lee Carsley are thought to be unavailable after they went off injured in the FA Cup match at Nottingham Forest on Saturday. Garry O'Connor, David Murphy and Teemu Tainio are also set to miss out.
Manchester United team news: Rio Ferdinand will not feature as he continues to rebuild his fitness while the problem that kept Nemanja Vidic out of the defeat to Leeds remains a mystery. Edwin van der Sar is still absent, so Tomasz Kuszczak is set to continue in goal. Sir Alex Ferguson vowed to make changes after the team's FA Cup exit, with Antonio Valencia, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs likely to come back into the midfield.
Probable Birmingham line-up (4-4-2): Hart, Carr, Dann, Johnson, Ridgewell, Larsson, Bowyer, Ferguson, McFadden, Jerome, Benitez.
Probable Manchester United line-up (4-4-2): Kuszczak, Rafael, Brown, Evans, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Rooney, Berbatov.
Soccernet prediction: Manchester United still have much to prove this season and Birmingham's form suggests they have enough to secure a draw on their home ground, but the champions have responded well to defeats this season, often recording substantial victories. With both Chelsea and Arsenal looking to depose them, United know they cannot afford to disappoint again and expect them to triumph.