Birmingham show signs of post-relegation revival
At St Andrew's
Birmingham and Leicester both radically overhauled their squads in the summer - and on the evidence at St Andrew's on Sunday it is the club which acted out of financial necessity that is starting to look in better shape.
Blues defeated the Foxes 2-0 to win their third straight fixture in all competitions and deserved their three points after a second-half performance during which they rattled opponents who had not conceded in 412 minutes of Championship action coming into the contest.
It was a second-half display that added to a growing feeling around the club that, within the playing squad at least, an unsettling and uncertain summer belongs firmly in the past.
Despite Sunday's win, Birmingham boss Chris Hughton says the season will be a "tough one". Photo: Getty
Birmingham won their first major trophy in 48 years last season when they defeated Arsenal in the Carling Cup final but their relegation from the Premier League, combined with problems at boardroom level, ushered in an age of austerity which led to 20 first-team players leaving in an attempt to raise money and cut costs.
Until the transfer window closed at the end of August, new manager Chris Hughton did not know exactly who would be left, and, with the exception of two cash buys, had to rebuild his side with a mixture of loan signings and free transfers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, several Blues players have suggested the season did not really start until the end of August. Results have certainly improved since then, with one win from Birmingham's first four league fixtures giving way to three victories in five since the start of September.
"When you lose so many players, rebuilding takes time," said Hughton. "You just never know how long it will take. We have benefited from the window closing and we now have a bit more consistency."
And despite losing the likes of Sebastian Larsson, Roger Johnson, Craig Gardner, Scott Dann and Cameron Jerome, they still possess quality players. Four from the XI that started against Arsenal - Stephen Carr, Liam Ridgewell, Keith Fahey and Nikola Zigic - figured at some stage against Leicester, while the excellent Jean Beausejour, who came on as a substitute against the Gunners, remains at the club and struck the woodwork with a fierce drive on Sunday.
Hughton has bolstered his squad with some good signings. Winger Chris Burke arrived early in the summer, followed by players such as striker Marlon King - a scorer from the penalty spot against the Foxes - and New Zealand forward Chris Wood, who is on loan from West Bromwich Albion and showed great composure to slot home his eighth Championship goal of the season against Sven-Goran Eriksson's side.
"We have got a confidence and belief now and we have all gelled together," said Wood, who illuminated an occasionally dour contest with one exquisite flick that played King through on goal.
Blues have also benefited from the return from injury of Zigic, King and Fahey, but it may yet transpire that the Europa League campaign that is currently giving the club's supporters a great deal of pleasure will undermine their hopes of a high finish in the league.
Birmingham have sold out their allocation for Thursday's match at Club Bruges and the fans celebrated their opening goal against the Foxes by chanting "we're all going on a European tour".
But the Championship is an unforgiving competition and, as Leicester themselves are currently finding, will test the strongest of squads.
While Hughton's team prepare to travel to Bruges they will miss another round of midweek Championship fixtures. It means they will have three games in hand on most other teams, lending a slightly skewed appearance to their current position of 15th in the table, but also leaving them playing catch-up on everyone else.
"We want to be in contention," added Hughton. "As long as we know that we are in a position to have a go [to win promotion] that is the aim. But it is a tough one with the European campaign."
Stephen Carr and Darius Vassell demonstrate the depth of experience in both squads. Photo: Getty
Leicester manager Eriksson probably has a squad with enough depth and quality to contemplate both the Europa League and the Championship but the over-riding focus of his season is winning promotion to the Premier League.
After watching his team concede their second at St Andrew's, the Swede was left scratching his head as he looked on from the sidelines.
Bankrolled by the club's wealthy Thai owners, Eriksson spent an estimated £10m in the summer on 12 new players and his team's 4-0 thrashing of Derby before the international break suggested they were starting to match on the pitch the power they possess on paper.
The Foxes boss had toyed with different systems earlier in the season but after playing a 4-3-3 formation at Barnsley in mid-September, he has settled on a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond - and it seemed to be working as they climbed from a low of 17th to eighth after the win over the Rams.
Leicester were on a nine-match unbeaten run going into Sunday's fixture and looked very solid in the first half. The match was still up for grabs after Blues took the lead but the Foxes were always vulnerable to a counter-attack after they had been reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of Matt Mills.
Nonetheless, even when Leicester had their full complement of players they lacked width and attacking invention. The unflappable Eriksson chose to pick out the positives after the match, noting that the Championship table can change quickly, and that victories over Watford and Millwall in the next six days will put them back on track.
"I think we are starting to look like a good, solid football team," said the Foxes' veteran manager.
"I wish that we created a little bit more in the first half today and we should do that with the possession we had but we can work on that.
"At the end I think it will be a good season."
But with a quarter of the campaign gone and the table starting to take shape, Eriksson's team are already seven points adrift of leaders Southampton - and they have plenty of improving to do if their manager's prediction is to be realised.