Premier League leader Manchester United host Birmingham City in a match at Old Trafford this upcoming Saturday afternoon. Birmingham currently sit 16th in the table and are locked in a battle to avoid relegation. In a meeting that took place just over 3 weeks ago, Birmingham equalised late at St Andrew's in controversial fashion as the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Late game substitute, Nikola Zigic appeared to foul United center-back Rio Ferdinand on a cross, and then used his arm to knock-down the ball for Lee Bowyer's equaliser. The result was another late blown lead by United and another draw away from Old Trafford.
Just as United did versus Tottenham Hotspur this past weekend, Birmingham is coming off a draw with rivals Aston Villa in their derby match. Birmingham have 11 draws in 21 league matches, which is tied with Fulham and Everton for most draws in the Prem. While a formidable foe at St Andrew's, Birmingham have struggled to a 1-5-4 record away from home. United have earned 31 out of a possible 33 points at Old Trafford in league play, and they undoubtedly will be disappointed with anything less than 3 points versus their West Midlands opponent.
Quite simply, Birmingham play ugly football. From their usual '4-4-1-1' formation, they play a very direct style and launch long balls to their lone target center-forward (either Cameron Jerome, Matt Derbyshire, or Zigic). Derbyshire fared very poorly last week versus Villa as this Guardian chalkboard displays. Alexander Hleb roams in between the lines and generally has little defensive responsibility. Hleb exhibits creativity at times in the attack, but he hasn't shown much finishing ability. Set piece specialist Sebastian Larsson is questionable to play, as the Swede has recently been involved in numerous transfer rumors. David Bentley recently arrived from Tottenham on loan and he might provide a threat from the right flank. Birmingham's band of 4 in the midfield tend to play relatively flat. Skipper Stephen Carr often makes runs forward from his right-back position, and adds to the attack. However, it's likely he'll be more reserved in these forward runs at Old Trafford. If Ryan Giggs keeps tucking in centrally though as he typically does, there will be space for him to bomb forward. Goalkeeper Ben Foster is a familiar face to United, and he's been spectacular at times this year (vs Chelsea especially). Birmingham likely will stay deep, compact, and organized. When they win the ball, they likely will send long balls to their lone center-forward to relieve pressure. However, it's unlikely he'll have much support and United should be able to regain possession quickly. The West Midlands side will almost certainly be coming to Old Trafford looking for a draw.
In their previous matchup at St Andrew's, Sir Alex Ferguson elected to go with a '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid, which was a surprise at the time to me. Fergie's lineup choice was a sign of respect to Birmingham, and how tough they are at home. Also, he likely was a bit worried about being overrun in the midfield with their attacker in 'the hole' drifting back to help in the midfield in their '4-4-1-1'. However, for this match, I fully anticipate Fergie going with a '4-4-2'. I expect Rooney to go back to his role of linking play between the lines and being a creator. Because Birmingham likely sits back deep for most of the match, my best guess for right-back, in replacing the suspended Rafael, is United legend Gary Neville. Neville just needs to be better positionally than he's been this season by staying more narrow, and not lunge in for risky tackles (easier said than done). Paul Scholes is finally healthy after being in the 18 for Tottenham, and going 60 minutes in a reserve match this week. I don't know if he's fit enough to start, but I expect to see the 'ginger maestro' come on as a substitute around the 60 min mark if the match is still close. His creative ability might be what it takes to unlock a compact and organized defense.
Again, guessing lineups can be like picking the right lottery numbers, but here's my guess anyway. A few things to keep in mind with this lineup guess. Scott Dann, a starting center-back for Birmingham, is out for the season now. The back 4 I put here is what they used versus Villa last weekend. As previously mentioned, Larsson's status is up in the air. If he plays, he's extremely dangerous as he takes their set pieces. Also, that could move Bentley to the left and they'd have 2 viable threats on the flanks. After Derbyshire's struggles last week, I expect Cameron Jerome to start up front. Yellow card happy Lee Bowyer could also start in the middle. As for United, any of 4 central midfielders could start: Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Anderson, Scholes. I guessed Anderson sitting because I was thinking Fergie might want his energy on Tuesday for the away match at Blackpool.
Prediction: United 2-0 Brum