Efficient Arsenal power past Birmingham

Arsenal kept the pressure on the two Manchester clubs with an efficient win over struggling Birmingham.
The away side were on top right from the start and, after Robin Van Persie gave Arsene Wenger’s side the lead after twelve minutes, the Midlands club never looked like getting back into the game.
In what turned out to be a rather drab affair Arsenal doubled their lead midway through the second half, Samir Nasri scoring his 13th goal of the season before fine interplay between the Frenchman and Cesc Fabregas resulted in Birmingham defender Roger Johnson putting the ball into his own net.

Picture courtesy of ESPN

After the midweek disappointment of conceding a late equaliser against Wigan, Wenger decided to ring the changes once again, making eight amendments to that side that faced the Latics. The likes of Gael Clichy, Fabregas, Nasri and Theo Walcott all returned, as did birthday boy Jack Wilshere, celebrating his 19th birthday today. For Birmingham, though, it was an unchanged line-up to that which fought for a draw against Manchester United midweek, with Lee Bowyer, Barry Ferguson and Scott Gardner making up a central midfield which needed to control of the middle of the pitch.

They didn’t, and thus Arsenal dominated. The possession stats (53% to Arsenal) don’t even tell half the story; the Gunners ruled the midfield and never let Birmingham have any time on the ball.
While Fabregas and Nasri were the conductors, though, it was Walcott you was breaking Birmingham’s rhythm early on, breezing past an awkward-looking Liam Ridgewell down the right-hand-side, winning a free kick for his side. The free kick came to nothing but the danger was there for all to see.
Arsenal’s technically gifted midfield of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas enjoyed vast amounts of time on the ball, with Alex Song used in an almost stopper-esque roll behind them. The five in midfield worked well for Arsenal, with Nasri coming inside more often than not, but it was the lone front man, Van Persie, who was the carver of the first chance after ten minutes.
Former Manchester United ‘keeper Ben Foster picked up a back-pass and, from the resulting free-kick, Van Persie curled a shot straight into the young goalkeeper’s hands. This was only a hint as to what was to come, though, as, just two minutes later, referee Peter Walton adjudged that the Dutchman was pulled back after a fine ball through from Fabregas. Van Persie seemed to go down with great ease but he soon dusted himself off before smashing the ball into the back of the net, although the shot seemed to take a significant deflection off Lee Bowyer who had been left exposed after Fabregas cleverly left a gap in a poorly formed wall.
Birmingham, rather than sitting back and taking the onslaught that was Arsenal’s attacking play, decided to attack at will and, within minutes of conceding the goal, went close to equalising with a free kick of their own. Larsson curled an effort from 25 yards but Lukasz Fabianski was more than equal to the effort, tipping it round the post.
The Gunners began to control the game more and more, though, after that chance and, with St Andrews suddenly desperately quiet, Ridgewell was booked for another foul on Walcott, who was menacing once again.
The big refereeing decision of the night, however, was to come eight minutes before half-time. A good-looking cross into the area seemed to hit Van Persie on the arm but, with Alex McLeish screaming for a penalty on the touchline, Walton waved play on. The striker then nearly doubled Arsenal’s lead, racing up the other end to only be denied by Foster with a fine save.
The first half was hardly enthralling action and the second wasn’t much better, although Scott Dann’s foul on Walcott earned him a yellow card early on. That meant three of Birmingham’s four defenders were on yellow cards, so Arsenal were allowed to play the ball around without being hassled so much, although a stamp on Bacary Sagna from Bowyer went unnoticed by the referee.
Arsenal should have doubled their lead just under the hour mark as Wilshere placed the ball over the bar from eight yards after fine work down the right-wing from Walcott and a cute lay-off from Van Persie. It wasn’t long, though, before Arsenal’s lead was increased.
A piercing run from Nasri at the Birmingham defence resulted in the midfielder slamming home his ninth Premier League goal this season, which is one more than he’s got in his two previous Arsenal campaigns put together.
And Arsenal added to their lead just seven minutes later, with Nasri again at the heart of the attack. Sensational footwork from the Frenchman inside the area laid the ball on a plate for Fabregas, who played a nice one-two with Nasri outside the area, but his shot was parried by Foster. The ball, though, bounced onto Dann, then off Johnson and then into the net; the hapless look on the Birmingham defender’s face pretty much told the story.
After the disappointing performance seen away at Wigan, a dominating and powerful showing away at Birmingham was exactly what was needed for Arsenal. The play might not have been as pulsating as has become expected with the Gunners but the fine passing and expert movement was certainly a delight to watch. The combinations of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas bode well and Walcott seems to pose more of a threat week by week.
Arsenal now sit two points behind Manchester City, who have played a game more, but it is Manchester United who seem to be steaming away with the league, sitting pretty at the top, level on points with their city rivals with two games in hand. For Birmingham, their difficult season continues, with the Midlands club struggling in the relegation zone, above bottom club Wolves by a mere point. 
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Matt Derbyshire signs on loan for Birmingham City

English youngster returns after useful spell abroad

After a disappointing World Cup for England in which many players were unable to adapt to anything other than the norm, it is refreshing to see an Englishman return after a strong period in another country.

Matt Derbyshire joined Blackburn Rovers as a seventeen-year-old after impressing whilst at local club Great Harwood Town. Derbyshire turned down the chance to play for Manchester United because he thought that his first team opportunities would be limited at Old Trafford. The striker scored ten goals in sixty-three appearances for boyhood team Blackburn, whilst also scoring ten goals in seven appearances for Wrexham, where he spent the 2005/06 season on loan.
Feeling that his chances would be limited at Rovers, with Benni McCarthy, Roque Santa Cruz and Jason Roberts in front of him in the pecking order, Derbyshire made the decision to go out on loan, with Greek giants Olympiacos the destination. On his home debut for the Greek side Derbyshire scored in extra time to secure the club’s progress to the semi-finals of the Greek Cup.
Derbyshire played a key role in the Greek Cup final in May 2009. With Olympiacos 2-0 down at half-time the striker was brought on. Derbyshire scored after three minutes of being on the pitch and, after the game had gone to 2-2, AEK Athens seemed to have scored the winner late on. With the final touch of the game, though, Derbyshire powered home a header with six minutes of injury time gone. Olympiacos went on to win the match on penalties and Derbyshire was rewarded with man of the match.
The forward moved to Olympiacos on a permanent basis in June 2009. The Greek fans had warmed to Derbyshire, nicknaming him the English Killer. The twenty-four-year-old has played fourteen times for England at under-21 level, scoring six goals, and will now be looking to help Alex McLeish’s side steer clear of relegation.
Derbyshire is one player from a list of English footballers to ply their trade abroad. A move abroad can do wonders for a player as they can learn new cultures and new ways of playing the sport, whilst also getting to grips with the style of another nation’s play. Former Liverpool midfielder Jermaine Pennant is currently playing for Spanish giants Real Zaragoza, while former Aston Villa forward Darius Vassell is currently a free agent after leaving Turkish side Ankaragucu at the end of last season.
Derbyshire passed his medical today and the Brum have an option to make the deal permanent at the end of the loan deal, which will be at the end of the season. The striker has earned the reputation of being an impact substitute but will be looking to break into the first team for Birmingham, with James McFadden, Cameron Jerome and Gary O’Connor his main foes for a place in the front-line. Derbyshire had a very good relationship with the Greek fans and will be hoping that he can maintain that at Birmingham, whilst also looking to put in some good performances in the Premier League, with half an eye on the England national team for sure. 

Premier League Preview: Birmingham City

After some impressive transfers and keeping hold of key players, Birmingham will be looking to avoid the infamous second season syndrome.

           Last season’s impressive ninth place finish means nothing now as Alex McLeish’s side look to improve and steer clear of the relegation worries that come with a second season after promotion to the English Premier League. They’ve certainly done the right thing by keeping the majority of their squad, with Lee Carsley and Franck Queudrue the only relatively big names to leave St. Andrews. As well as keeping their best players, City have also strengthened in the right areas with very good signings. England hopeful Ben Foster has joined from Manchester United for £6 million, with the goalkeeper looking to improve his chances of becoming England number one by playing more first team football. McLeish needed to improve in the goalkeeping area after last season’s hero, Joe Hart, returned to parent club Manchester City after a hugely successful loan spell. Another big signing for Birmingham is the capture of Nikola Zigic. The big striker, who is well known all over the world for his strength in the air and determination on the ground, has signed from Valencia for a fee that mirrors that of Foster’s. Zigic is likely to partner either James McFadden or Cameron Jerome up front, with both strikers putting in good performances last season. Between them they scored sixteen goals in the league in the 2009/2010 season, with McFadden acting as the creative spark for McLeish’s team. The flair, agility and awareness on the ball of the Scot could be the perfect partner to the pure strength and potency of Zigic.
At the back, Birmingham look relatively strong. Liam Ridgewell, Roger Johnson and Stephen Carr are all experienced defenders and looked good last season. Scott Dann looks to be turning to a great purchase from Coventry as the 23 year old looks to improve on last season’s 30 appearances. The defensive strength is backed up further by the quality behind them in the form of Foster.
The main weakness of the Brum, though, is the midfield. The quality of Barry Ferguson and Sebastian Larsson is overshadowed by the fact that they have very little in terms of pace down the wings. Larsson’s crossing ability and Ferguson’s experience and quality on the ball will make not make an impact if there are no passing opportunities available. Lee Bowyer is the closest thing the Midlands side have to a winger and he can hardly be described as speedy. As long as McLeish’s side keep it tight and do what they did last season they should be fine.

Where will they finish?: 13th
Official relegation odds: 7/1 (Bet365)
Star man: James McFadden
One to watch: Scott Dann
Main weakness: Lack of pace