Hleb returns to Arsenal with Birmingham and has a point to prove
Belarussian midfielder left for Barcelona two years ago, but has now fallen on hard times and is on loan at St Andrew’s
The visit of Birmingham City to the Emirates on Saturday shouldn’t strike fear into Gunners fans, as the Midlands club haven’t won at Arsenal since 1956.
Home fans’ optimism of picking up all three points will be raised further by former Gunner Alexander Hleb, who publicly aired his grievances about the standard of play at his new club by stating: “I’m not quite happy with the level of the team.”
Alex McLeish’s side have suffered a difficult start to the season and find themselves perilously close to the relegation zone after losing 2-0 against Everton, which condemned them to their first home league defeat in over a year.
Having finished in a creditable ninth position upon their return to the Premier League last season, City will be aiming to recreate the form that saw them go on a 15-game unbeaten run.
With only one league victory this time around though, Birmingham will be looking to the experience and guile of on-loan Belarus international Hleb to help overcome his former club.
The winger’s promising career stuttered under heavy competition at the Camp Nou after his departure from north London in favour of Barcelona, and he clearly still pines for the attacking football that he experienced in Spain and at Arsenal.
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“Naturally I miss the combinational and creative football by Arsenal and Barca, but that was my own choice,” he said.
Having spent the majority of his time in Spain warming the bench, Hleb is grateful for first team action, but has yet to warm to the style of play at St Andrew’s.
“The Birmingham style is not the kind of game I dreamed about. It is good that now I have a lot of time on the pitch, but I want to play football of a different kind,” he said.
The visitors’ task will be made even harder by the fact they will have to do without their Chilean World Cup star Jean Beausejour, after he suffered a knee ligament injury, and also leading goalscorer Craig Gardner, who is suspended after being given a straight red card in the recent draw against Wigan.
Cameron Jerome is likely to start as their lone striker, in favour of their tree-like Serbian international Nikola Zigic and former Blackburn forward Matt Derbyshire, who is on loan from Greek side Olympiakos.
Having established their ability with a top-half finish last season, Birmingham will be looking to transfer the steely determination that they displayed at home to the Emirates this weekend, and should provide stiffer competition than their recent form suggests.
It will be the performances of the combative duo Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer that will be vital to Birmingham’s cause, as they will try to dominate midfield, where they are more than capable of winning the physical battle against Arsenal.
Birmingham have struggled to find the net this season with Jerome only managing one goal so far and, without Gardner, City will undoubtedly be happy with a draw away from home.
Arsenal should have too much for their defensive minded opponents.
Arsenal 2 Birmingham 0