Birmingham City travel to Stamford Bridge on Saturday for what is likely to be a thoroughly exciting FA Cup fifth round tie, as the visitors hope to cash in on Chelsea’s recent troubles and record a shocking win at a ground where they have never won since the founding of the Premier League.
On paper, this tie should be a walk in the park for Chelsea, a team oozing with talent and one thoroughly determined to come away with at least one trophy this season.
As such, they are a short 3/10 to earn victory.
The problem is, of course, that this competition has scant regard for favourites, or for the huge transfer fees and salaries they command.
Chris Hughton’s men have only allowed two of their opponents to take the lead against them since the start of January, and were able to peg them back on both occasions.
If anything, this edition of the FA Cup is due a giant-killing, and there is no doubt that Alex McLeish’s former charges are spoiling for a good scrap, having not lost a single game this year.
Since bringing in Chris Hughton at the start of the season, Birmingham have managed to keep up with the play-off pace in the Championship even while performing well on the European stage, where they were eliminated at the Europa League group phase despite three impressive wins.
Two of them came against Maribor, a side famous for having knocked out Scottish champions Rangers in the preliminary rounds.
Now, they face a Chelsea side that has experienced a difficult start to 2012, as Andre Villas-Boas’ charges were knocked out by Liverpool in the League Cup (on home soil), while they fell away from the forward pack in the Premier League title race.
This weekend’s fixture is therefore as good a time as any to strike at the faltering Pensioners, whose confidence must have taken an almighty knock after they were held to a three-all draw at home against Manchester United before putting in a listless performance at Goodison Park in their 2-0 defeat to Everton.
The fact that Chelsea could not hold on to a three goal lead must be a cause for concern: though they were up against one of the best sides in the country, and the refereeing decisions certainly didn’t swing their way, these are hardly excuses for a side known for grinding out results when the going got tough.
Crucially, the FA Cup has a habit of unmasking such frailties just when push comes to shove, and Chelsea certainly have many weaknesses to address: at present, they can’t even rely on their normally-steady home form.
The Londoners have lost four times at the Bridge already this season, including a 3-1 loss to Alec McLeish’s Aston Villa just a few weeks ago.
Tactically speaking, City’s wingers will be looking to make the tie as uncomfortable as possible for Ashley Cole – who seems to be going through a dip in form of late – and Jose Bosingwa; whilst Marlon King’s presence in the box could just make the difference, especially were he to be partnered by Nikola Zigic, the tall, gangly Serbian striker who is always an awkward proposition in the air.
Birmingham’s odds of 9/1 are, therefore, more than worth a punt, especially if they were to take the lead: out of the eleven games they have taken part in, Chris Hughton’s men have only allowed two of their opponents to take the lead against them since the start of January, and were able to peg them back on both occasions.
More importantly, you need to go back to late November to find an instance in which City did not convert a lead into a win: on that occasion, it was Ian Holloway’s Blackpool who nearly spoiled the party until Nikola Zigic saved the day three minutes from time.
Birmingham are, therefore, a good bet to book their ticket to the next round, or at least ensure a replay at St Andrews, priced at an inviting 4/1.
Otherwise, it might be worth considering their odds of opening the scoring at Stamford Bridge, an eventuality priced at an interesting 17/5.
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