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Relegation fears weigh heavily on derby rivals

The combatants in the Birmingham derby today may be diminished forces, but the significance of their confrontation has not paled. If anything, the stakes are heightened: where the sight of Aston Villa at St Andrew's is normally regarded by Birmingham City as a visit by the loathed local aristocrats, the clubs face-off today as fellow travellers in a fierce relegation struggle.

Subtly, the balance of power in Birmingham is shifting, with Villa's status as aspiring top-four gatecrashers undermined by a wretched run of results that has left them in 19th, one point behind their sworn rivals in the Premier League in 16th.

St Andrew's may be a dilapidated throwback of a ground but when Villa come calling at a critical juncture in the season, it will stage the type of febrile rivalry to invite comparison with Rangers versus Celtic, or even that Istanbul cauldron of Galatasaray versus Fenerbahce.

These two clubs detest each other with a rare passion, as the near-riot at the final whistle of their Carling Cup quarter-final last month attested.

The mass pitch invasion that broke out after Birmingham's 2-1 victory, their first over Villa in eight meetings, was threatening enough to leave a campaigner as grizzled as Alex McLeish "worried". A "return to the dark ages," he called it.

But the Birmingham manager should harbour few such concerns about his team's chances of a repeat triumph. While it is true that their famed defensive resilience, as exemplified by full-hearted centre-halves Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, has broken down of late, McLeish's imperative has been to find a trusty striker. His players owe their imperilled position not so much to lapses at the back as to a chronic toothlessness up front, underlined by a return of 20 goals in 20 matches, including just nine at home.

Nikola Zigic, all 6ft 8in of him, has not proved to be the answer, but the entrance of Robbie Keane could yet conceal the Croatian's flaws. The striker was poised to join Birmingham yesterday after the club had their bid of £6m for the 30-year-old accepted by Tottenham.

Despite Keane's reputation as well-travelled-- he has interrupted two spells at White Hart Lane with less fruitful moves to Liverpool and Celtic -- his strike rate has drawn the admiration of McLeish. The Scot remains determined to build on the Irish captain's arrival by also acquiring Kenny Miller from Rangers.

McLeish, fresh from bringing in David Bentley to inject some dynamism on the wing, is fashioning a team with the vibrancy to worry Villa.

Some could argue that his line-up is beginning to resemble Tottenham's reserves, but the Scot's main priority is to win over fans troubled by Birmingham's tailspin towards the relegation places.

So congested is the mid-table area that McLeish appreciates, as does Gerard Houllier at Villa, that a win today could transform the outlook, ushering one club into relative safety and the other into a deepening nightmare.

"Nothing surprises me in this league," he said, as he prepared for a tense skirmish. "Derby games are definitely the ones where you need the passion but have to keep a discipline."

Houllier, who hopes to galvanise a labouring Villa with the addition of Jean Makoun, a former protégé at Lyon, is not naive about the ferocious reception that awaits his players. "We are hurt and not happy with the position we are in," the Frenchman said.

"This is another incentive to do well, first of all because it is a derby and for the fans it is very important. It is a different ball game. There will be a lot of commitment. It will be fierce."


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