Manchester United-Birmingham City Preview

Jan 7, 2010 - 3:46 PM NEIL RICHARDS STATS European Football Writer=

LONDON (SE) - Sir Alex Ferguson could hardly have wished for a tougher opponent in Birmingham City on Saturday as his Manchester United team look to erase the memory of one of the Scot's most humiliating results in his time at Old Trafford.

In one of the biggest shocks of recent seasons, United were last weekend knocked out of the FA Cup by Leeds, an old adversary of years past, but one which has fallen on hard times in recent years and one which currently sits two divisions below the Premier League champions.

The 1-0 defeat represented the first time a team managed by Ferguson had gone out to a side from a lower division and his comments at the final whistle suggested that someone was going to pay.

United's League Cup semi-final first leg with Manchester City was cancelled Wednesday because of the freezing weather in England, so it is Birmingham who must beware the backlash.

Only these days the Blues are afraid of no-one and can set an all-time club record if they avoid defeat in the top-flight for a 12th time in succession. Birmingham currently lie eighth in the table and are only five points off a Champions League place. Certainly a lot of water has passed under the bridge since they lost to a solitary Wayne Rooney goal at United on the opening day of the season.

Ferguson has nothing but admiration for the job done at St Andrew's by his fellow Scot Alex McLeish and believes Birmingham's progress merely highlights how the gap has closed between the big four clubs and the rest.

"There is an improvement in the league. You have to assess it that way," said the United manager.

"Look at Birmingham for instance and the fantastic job Alex McLeish has done. He only had a small amount of money to budget with when they came into the Premier League.

"He brought Barry Ferguson down from Rangers and brought in the centre-half from Cardiff (Roger Johnson). He has used players who have been there for a long time now. What he has done has been marvellous."

One of the main reasons Blues have been so difficult to beat in recent times has been their watertight defence.

Birmingham have kept six clean sheets in their current unbeaten run, no side in the Premier League has conceded fewer goals at home in the Premier League and only leaders Chelsea have a better defensive record overall.

"It's incredible, the feeling we have right now," defender Liam Ridgewell told the Birmingham Mail. "You go into the game believing the opposition are not going to score against you.

"It rubs off on the other team, they know how tough we are.

"We're difficult to break down, difficult to score against and we've got the resilience to keep a clean sheet. Hopefully we can keep it going."

He added: "It's a great achievement to be part of a side that has gone as many games unbeaten, for the first time in 100-odd years. Hopefully we can make it 12, 13, 14 without defeat."

McLeish has worked wonders on a shoestring budget, but has been handed a transfer kitty by new owner Carson Yeung that some estimate at around 40 million pounds.

The Blues boss must now decide how heavily to invest in the January transfer window and knows he runs the risk of destroying the team spirit he has forged at St Andrew's. It is certainly a dilemma for McLeish, but one that most managers would love to have.

Birmingham have already been linked with a nine million pounds bid for Liverpool's unsettled Dutch winger, Ryan Babel, and they are also said to be closing in on Sporting Gijon midfielder Michel.

McLeish missed out on the 24-year-old playmaker last summer, but seems likely to get his man this time.

Form may not be on United's side, but at least history is: Birmingham have not beaten the Red Devils since handing out a 5-1 thrashing at St Andrew's on Nov. 11, 1978.

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