Fearless Zarate can fight to the bitter end

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The Independent Football

It used to be gypsy curses, boardroom battles and semi-final heartbreak that troubled Birmingham City. Latterly, it has been visits from the City of London Police and the arrest of two members of the St Andrew's top brass.But one common denominator through the decades has been the waging of relegation scraps at the business end of a season.

Another such struggle is upon them as they prepare for this lunchtime's visit to their nearest and not so dearest, Aston Villa, winners of the last three Second City derbies; it is some time since a high noon shoot-out seemed quite this high for Birmingham.

Their manager, Alex McLeish, has already warned that the survival issue could hang in the balance until the final afternoon, so a month in which co-owner David Sullivan and the managing director, Karren Brady, have been arrested, questioned and bailed over false accounting allegations could have more nasty twists.

Unfortunately for them, Villa have much to play for too, with Europe on the horizon – an ambition fuelled by their previous two matches, in which they beat Bolton 4-0 and Derby 6-0.

Then there are the local bragging rights. In recent seasons, Robbie Savage has dedicated one Birmingham win in the fixture to Olof Mellberg, the then Villa captain, who had said before kick-off that he did not care too much for the club a couple of postcodes away; and after Kevin Phillips had hit the only goal at St Andrew's two seasons ago, Villa's then manager, David O'Leary, indulged in a celebratory run on the pitch that earned few marks for tact.

So Birmingham are confronted by neighbours who, despite the Old Firm-garnered respect between managers McLeish and Martin O'Neill, would perhaps hardly mourn their passing as a Premier League entity. But the Finnish international striker Mikael Forssell believes the visitors will still prove that they are a cut above the Birmingham side who went down in 2006.

"When you compare this situation to two years ago, I think it was much worse then," he said. "You can see people now being more positive. We have got results in the past few weeks but, when things haven't gone our way, we've still been positive.

"We know this team is good enough to stay in the Premier League. That's why there's not much concern in the camp. We know it's still in our own hands and we just have to show it."

Birmingham have lost at Bolton, Huddersfield, Sunderland, Reading and Wigan since they last won away. There is a skittish side to them, though, their results including a point at Anfield, home and away draws against Arsenal and all six points against Tottenham.

They will probably need to score today – they have not kept a clean sheet in 16 games – and in the on-loan Mauro Zarate they have a man capable of grabbing a crucial goal. He has four in his past four games, including a sumptuous late equaliser from a free-kick against Everton last weekend, and his manager said: "I don't think an Argentinian who has played in Buenos Aires in front of vociferous, fervent fans will be fazed by this derby. He'll probably relish it. You need big personalities for games like this. He's inexperienced in Premier League terms but talent, bottle and belief – he's got all those.

"He has made a tremendous impact and we've been brave enough to throw him right in there. We looked at him because he can make a difference."

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