Saturday, August 7, 2010

Relegation Fodder (Birmingham City)

Birmingham City were last year's Cinderella story, finishing ninth in their first season after promotion. Of course this will be their seventh season in the top flight out of the last ten, so they weren't exactly neophytes, most of the players had a fair amount of Premier League experience.

Alex McLeish did a great job in leading this club to a top half finish, given how limited the squad was, and, quite honestly, still is. The primary reason for their success was a solid, tremendously consistent, and shockingly injury-free defense. Birmingham's best run of form coincided with them being able to start the same back four and keeper for something like 15 matches in a row. On top of that, combative midfielder Barry Ferguson started 37 matches, and given his playing style, the 32-year-old is unlikely to duplicate that feat.

Even more significant is the loss of keeper Joe Hart. Hart started 36 matches last season, was Birmingham's best player and, in my opinion, the best keeper in the league. His loan deal has expired, and he has returned to Manchester City. McCleish has contacted his Scottish mate on the other side of Manchester and come up with Ben Foster. Foster was once expected to be what Joe Hart is now, but he has not played more than 15 matches since the 2006-2007 season, which he spent on loan at Watford. He is only 27, so a re-emergence is not out of the question, but he is unlikely to be as good as Hart was last season. He is a good shot-stopper, but makes questionable decisions in other aspects of the game, and decision making was one of Joe Hart's strengths.

Cameron Jerome and new signing Nikola Zigic will form a solid partnership, if McCleish chooses to play them together, but this team will never be prolific in its goal-scoring. I think the defense will really regress, and there exists very little creativity in the midfield, I can't see players like James McFadden and Sebastian Larson repeating their performances from last season.

So I believe the cynics call it "second season syndrome," and Birmingham City seems like a prime candidate in my opinion. Will they go down? Probably not. But I think they will be in or near the bottom three all season, and if they survive it will be by a scant point or two, possibly even on goal difference. They will end up with a point total in the high 30's, and whether that is enough will depend on clubs such as Wolves, West Brom, and (wait for it) Newcastle. More on that to come.

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