John Carew has spent more time watching than playing since Gerard Houllier arrived at Aston Villa in September, but he is poised for a dramatic recall in tomorrow's Birmingham derby-cum-relegation six-pointer at St Andrew's.
The 6ft 7in Norway striker last started a match against Arsenal in November. Now, with Villa's options restricted by suspensions to Emile Heskey and Ashley Young, Carew is on standby to face Birmingham.
"He looked very good in training," Houllier said yesterday. "He scored goals, looked fit and has had a very good week. He will be involved. Maybe he'll start."
Birmingham manager Alex McLeish would happily trade the moral high ground of being the better team for a second 'undeserved' victory in the space of six weeks over Villa.
When the rivals tangled in a combustible Carling Cup quarter-final at St Andrew's, Birmingham secured a 2-1 win to add to their 0-0 away draw in the Premier League.
Of all the defeats Villa have suffered under Houllier's tenure -- and there have been eight in the league alone -- that cup loss pains the Frenchman most because he maintains they were the superior side.
But McLeish, whose players could be facing a Villa team occupying bottom place at kick-off if West Ham and Wigan were to win today, said of their neighbours' decline from three consecutive sixth-place finishes to the relegation zone: "Nothing surprises me in this league. This season has been crazy -- the quality and competitiveness have gone up and only five points separate West Ham and (12th-placed) Everton. We're one of a few in that mix."
Houllier is still bemoaning the cup exit -- overlooking the fact that Birmingham had the better of the October stalemate -- -- but McLeish said: "We won the game, that's the bottom line."
Aware that Birmingham had lost six successive matches to Villa before this season, McLeish added: "It was a long time coming. In a couple of games that have gone against us, we've been the better team. Maybe he's got a point, but in the end we were more the effective team as we went through."
The Villa manager was not prepared to countenance the notion of defeat but acknowledged that Villa were in "a bad position".
While he has detected "a lot of improvement" since the 3-3 draw at Chelsea a fortnight ago, Houllier remains concerned by their record of shedding 14 points from leading positions and the failure to keep a clean sheet since October.
He returned to oversee training yesterday following a trip to France, where he attempted to tie up a £5m deal for Jean Makoun.
The midfielder's return to the Lyons team has seen them surge from the lower reaches of the French league to fourth place, and Houllier is hopeful he can inspire a similar charge by Villa.
"He's exactly what we need -- he can win the ball, sit in front of the defence and also go box to box. There's a lot of positive dialogue, but we haven't got him yet."
Carew is likely to partner Gabriel Agbonlahor, one of the few Brummies involved in the game.
Agbonlahor should cause particular anxiety in the home backline, having scored in each of his previous three outings at St Andrew's.
Facing them may be Czech inter-national centre-back Martin Jiranek, who is in line to replace the injured Scott Dann.
McLeish may also give a debut to former England winger David Bentley, hinting that the on-loan Tottenham player could play on the left, thereby pitting him against Villa's loan right-back from Spurs, Kyle Walker, on his home debut. (© Independent News Service)
Birmingham City v A Villa, live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, 12.0