By Richard Wakefield
For the first time in a long time, Aston Villa finally have a fixture with something on the line. One of the only positives of being in the Championship is being able to play local city rivals Birmingham City and this fixture will not disappoint. Birmingham are hovering just above the drop zone giving an already safe Aston Villa the chance to not only take local bragging rights, but to turn the screw on the Blues relegation fears.
Villa manager Steve Bruce will be all too familiar with this fixture having managed both sides in a Second City derby whereas the man in the opposite dug out will not only be managing his first derby match, but his first Birmingham match. Harry Redknapp was appointed as the Blues’ manager in hopes he can keep up the ship that Zola had begun to sink.
Villa’s top scorer Jonathan Kodjia will be forced to sit out of this match after receiving a one match suspension for his controversial kick on Ryan Fredericks against Fulham. This means for the three points, Bruce will be forced to pull something new out of his locker now that the man he has relied on so many times will be absent.
Here’s three ways of making it happen…as well as not playing three centre backs!
The last couple of weeks have been pretty rough for Villa; 3-1 defeats to both Fulham and Reading may have not been disastrous due to Villa’s league position, but it highlighted the underlying problems that Villa still face. The defence leaked six goals in the last two games, a problem that Steve Bruce will be very aware of with his priority being tight at the back.
When problems arise, fingers start to be pointed and the man in the firing line is Jordan Amavi. The Frenchman replaced January signing Neil Taylor at left-back a few weeks ago and Villa’s defensive resiliency has crumbled ever since. Taylor was seen to be a poor deal for the club when Jordan Ayew went the other way to Swansea but the Welshman has fit Bruce’s tactics perfectly and was part of the defence that only conceded one goal in eight games.
Unfortunately it may be touch and go on whether or not Taylor will be fit enough to face Birmingham on Sunday, but if he is match fit at any capacity, he should definitely start over Amavi to bolster Villa’s defence and make it even harder for the Blues to break through. Alternatively, if Taylor isn’t fit enough and Amavi must start, it’s mandatory that he is given extra cover either by one of the midfielders or centre-backs that will be positioned around him if Villa are to keep a clean sheet.
Birmingham sit three points above the dreaded drop zone and are at serious risk of being dragged into League One. It’s almost unbelievable to think that Birmingham were above Villa in December before sacking popular boss Gary Rowett. The appointment of Zola was the catalyst for the downfall of the Blues and his resignation came as no surprise, unlike the appearance of Harry Redknapp as their interim manager until the end of the season.
Redknapp hasn’t managed in England since his departure from QPR in 2015 after he had problems with his knee. He managed to get QPR promoted during his last spell at the club proving that if given the correct squad, he can achieve success in this division. With Londoner being brought in just last week, the match against Villa will be his first in charge at his new job and will bring something extra for Bruce to think about when planning for this match.
The Birmingham players will be reinvigorated and will play a whole lot different to how they have in previous weeks. The occasion of the Second City derby would have brought the best out of many of the players regardless of a new manager, but under fresh tactics and with the need to impress the new gaffer, the Birmingham players will certainly be starting in a high gear which Bruce needs to account for. Maybe putting an emphasis on possession in the early part of the game will help take the sting out of the Blues?
Right on cue the almost forgotten man has reared his head just in time for the Second City derby. Like the game at St Andrew, Gabriel Agbonlahor has been absent from the first team for months but has coincidentally gotten back in to contention right in time for the fixture which he is supposedly more effective in.
Under no circumstance should Agbonlahor start on Sunday, even with the suspension of Kodjia.
Gabby has managed to score four goals in nine appearances against Birmingham, which is actually not a bad record. However, when the goals are broken down and put in to context the stat is not anywhere near as impressive. The last time Agbonlahor managed to score against the Blues was all the way back in 2010. The last seven years haven’t been too kind to the 30-year-old and has left him a shell of the man who used to terrorise the defence of Villa’s local rivals.
It should also be considered that when Agbonlahor’s ‘reign of terror’ over the Blues was under way, Villa had a far better team than Birmingham. They were constantly yo-yoing between the Premier League and the Championship whilst Villa were either a solid mid-table team or even challenging for European places. When Gabby had players like James Milner, Gareth Barry and Ashley Young creating chances, it was hard for him not to score.
If Steve Bruce is serious about picking up the three points on Sunday, he should steer clear of playing Agbonlahor from the off. The Birmingham born lad just isn’t up to scratch, which he proved in January. Gabby hasn’t managed to score in the Championship yet in the games he did play, which truly epitomises how far he has fallen.
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