Gerard Houllier takes his Villa side on the short trip to St Andrews for the second time in a matter of months after being knocked out of the League Cup. The Villa manager will be all to aware that as much as this is a must win game for the club, it is a must not lose game with regards to his position as manager. The fierce rivals have met twice this season having played out a drab stalemate at Villa Park before Birmingham scored a late winner to knock Villa out of the quarter finals of the cup. Houllier will have been hoping to have been boosted by the signing of midfielder Jean Makoun but despite a fee being agreed, personal terms have not yet been finalised and the likelihood of the Cameroonian joining in time for the derby is looking less and less imminent. Villa will be without two key players in Heskey and Ashley Young, both suspended, with Houllier set to field a young side once again. Many of the club’s young reserves will be hoping for a chance after annihilating Arsenal’s second string 10-1 in midweek.
Houllier’s side eased the mounting pressure on the Frenchman somewhat, with a decent 3-1 away win over Sheffield United in the FA Cup but the manager will no that all that goes out the window without a result against the Blues. Villa’s previous recent record against McLeish’s men was near exemplary under Martin O’Neill and a season without beating the fierce rivals is unthinkable to the fans.
The boss is not helped by two of his most important assets thus far this season after petulance from Emile Heskey, who received a straight red against Sunderland, was followed up by a needless second booking to Ashley Young in the cup last time out. Despite this the club have no real new injury concerns though Luke Young and Fabian Delph both remain sidelined. The fitness of John Carew is unknown to anyone at the moment though Gerard Houllier did hint at a return with Heskey suspended though it seems the writing may well be on the wall at the club for the Norwegian.
Gabby Agbonlahor is fit to start up front and will look to build on an impressive goalscoring record against the Blues after netting Villa’s equaliser last time out. Eye-catching displays capped by goals for both Marc Albrighton and loanee Kyle Walker should see them partner down the right flank. The annoyingly talkative Robert Pires is likely to be dropped to the bench to be replaced by Stiliyan Petrov who came on to good effect, scoring against Sheffield United.
Ciaran Clark should keep his place at left back with Warnock forced to the fringes alongside Carew and Ireland. Carlos Cuellar’s clumsy challenge which gave away a penalty last time out may well see him replaced by the rested James Collins alongside Richard Dunne. With attacking options limited, Barry Bannan could be deployed in the free role behind Agbonlahor after a decent return in the cup.
The Blues have good news and bad news on the team front. McLeish will be buoyed by the signing of David Bentley on loan from Tottenham and the midfielder is likely to go straight into the starting line-up. The Scotsman is hopeful of bringing in Rangers striker Kenny Miller after agreeing a fee but talks are not near conclusion according to reports so that deal is unlikely to be completed in time.
Mainstay defensive partner to Roger Johnson, Scott Dann has suffered a torn hamstring with Villa old-boy Liam Ridgewell likely to shift over from centre-back. After a man of the match performance in the recent reserves drubbing of Arsenal, Gary Gardner, younger brother of former-Villa, now Blues midfielder Craig, will be hoping to spark some sibling rivalry and may make the Villa bench. Veteran Lee Bowyer returns from a three match ban and Seb Larsson is likely to start, despite rumours linking him with a move to Newcastle.
Sunday’s game will either be a godsend for Houllier in that victory will make Villa fans and board members forget about their perilous position until the next game at least. Equally it could signal the beginning of the end for the Frenchman if defeated in which case the manager may rue the suspensions of Heskey and Young. COME ON THE VILLA!
Possible Starting XI: Friedel; Walker, Collins, Dunne, Clark; Albrighton, Reo-Coker, Petrov, Downing; Bannan; Agbonlahor
Key Man: Marc Albrighton
Goalscorer(s): Agbonlahor, Clark
Final Score: 0-2!
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