Relations between Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion have never been particularly harmonious, but this season they are threatening to turn more fractious than ever.
With Sunderland relegated (if not mathematically, then in all reality), Portsmouth sinking fast and Middlesbrough at last remembering how good they are supposed to be, the final relegation spot looks like being filled by a team from the West Midlands. It is, as the West Brom defender Curtis Davies said this week, “them or us”.
Given the sides meet at St Andrews next week, there is a sense of phoney war about this Saturday, of jockeying for position. Yet if Birmingham were to win at Middlesbrough, they could not merely pull level with West Brom, but would drag Steve McClaren’s neurotic side back into the dogfight.
What is odd is that each of those three teams would have begun the season with realistic hopes of a mid-table finish or better – as, indeed, would Aston Villa, who complete the West Midlands tale of woe after yet another season of under-performance. Defeat at home to the ailing Portsmouth on Saturday is all but unthinkable, but were it to happen the alarm bells would be deafening.
This is where the argument that the Premiership is predictable disintegrates. Although Chelsea’s dominance almost total, lower down the table the plot is rather more complex.
Sunderland have been overwhelmed by the weakness of their squad and the weight of their pessimism and Portsmouth have been disrupted by wholesale changes in personnel, but for the rest there is no simple explanation.
“Consistency has been our real problem,” said the West Brom captain Kevin Campbell. “We put in a good performance and the wheels come off, and as a footballer that’s one of the most frustrating things.
“It’s hard to put your finger on why it happens. You prepare the same way, you approach the game the same way, you take the same attitude into it and you get a totally different result.”
West Brom have beaten Arsenal and Tottenham this season but have yet to achieve consecutive victories, have conceded four points to Sunderland and were thrashed 6-1 by Fulham.
“We play better against the big teams,” said Campbell, which is why there is hope at The Hawthorns that they can upset Chelsea on Saturday, particularly given the champions’ uncertain form over the past fortnight.
“If we could put in the level of performance we showed in the previous home game against Blackburn another 10 times this season, we’ve got no problems,” Campbell added. “But we’ve got to stamp out the mistakes.”
The issue, perhaps, is simply one of mentality – that the focus is better against an opponent perceived to be more dangerous; inevitably when a team feels the onus is on it to attack, it becomes more lax defensively and it is largely individual errors that have undone Albion this season.
Chelsea at least is one of those pressure-free games, in which anything gained is a bonus.
Birmingham, by contrast, must see Middlesbrough as an opportunity. Moans about injury crises are an easy panacea, but City manager Steve Bruce’s protests have more validity than most: only five of his squad have managed more than 20 league games this season.
Yet there is also a feeling of decay about Birmingham, not just from a playing point of view. Bruce warned Jermaine Pennant, one of the real bright spots of this season, about the need to “lead a better life off the field” after a fracas with stewards at a nightclub this week, but it might have been hoped that the winger would have learned his lesson after being jailed for a drink-
driving offence last season.
Bruce said: “I think this incident has been blown out of proportion, but he cannot be seen prancing up and down Broad Street at 3am.”
The manager’s own dispute with midfielder Nicky Butt and the disappearance of Mikael Forssell’s goalscoring touch have only worsened the malaise.
There have at least been recent signs of improvement as injured players have returned, the last nine games bringing just two defeats. But even if Birmingham do pull level with Albion on Saturday, there must be a concern.
Results would suggest that the last thing you want to be doing before taking on West Brom is playing well.