Hleb can bring a bit of Barca to Brum

McLeish looks to build on last season's impressive top-half finish by adding a little creativity.
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The Independent Online

The last time Birmingham City had much to do with Barcelona was, appropriately, half a century ago. Appropriately because until last season, 1959 was the most recent occasion on which the club had finished as high as ninth in the top division of English football.

The reward on that occasion was an invitation to the Inter-Cities' Fairs Cup, in which Birmingham reached the final, only to be well beaten by a Barcelona team almost as glamorous as the current one; they had humiliated the English champions Wolves 5-2 at Molineux and a few months later became the first side ever to knock Real Madrid out of the European Cup.

Now, 50 years on, the clubs have been brought together again in the loan transfer of Alexander Hleb, the quiet and still rather frail-looking Belarussian who spent three seasons at Arsenal before leaving for Catalonia. It is a slightly more tenuous link, perhaps, but one that illustrates new ambition at St Andrews under the stewardship of Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung.

That is certainly how the manager, Alex McLeish, sees it. "In the grand scheme of things I don't think we've spent a lot of money but the board have backed me really well," he said at the club's training ground south of the city on Friday. "It's a bit of a coup for us. Alex is a player that makes things happen and we maybe lack a little creativity in forward areas. It's a big boost in terms of what I was looking for. Benfica were a long way down the road with him so I was really surprised when I heard in the last 48 hours of the [transfer] window that he would prefer to come to Birmingham."

There was a hint of self-mockery when Hleb said of his new club: "This is my dream!" He did appear to have the possibility of joining either Tottenham or today's visitors, Liverpool, yet the virtual guarantee of regular first-team football lured him to the least fashionable of the three destinations. After Arsenal, Barcelona and even Stuttgart, the Second City's working-class club may take some getting used to.

McLeish's hope is that Hleb will bring a touch of class to the artisans, much as City's last similar signing, Christophe Dugarry, did when he was brought in from Bordeaux in January 2003. The charismatic Frenchman helped carry the Blues to safety that season in the Premier League, from where they twice suffered relegation.

McLeish took over from Steve Bruce in mid-season three years ago, unable to repeat Dugarry's trick, but he brought them straight back up and on the back of only modest recruitment achieved that notable finish in the top half of the table last May.

The trick now, of course, is to repeat or even better it. "It's going to be very difficult, a big challenge," McLeish admits. "The second season can be much tougher. But we can take a good example from Stoke City and what they've done."

The start has been solid, with a home win over Blackburn and away draws at Sunderland and Bolton, the first after trailing 2-0 and the second after leading by the same score.

Liverpool, who within recent memory won an FA Cup tie 7-0 at St Andrews, are expected to find the ground a less hospitable place these days. It is a year since Birmingham's colours were lowered at home by Bolton and Aston Villa, the only visitors to win there last season. "Home games were great for us against the big guns, and the fans were crucial," McLeish said. "Hearing managers saying it was a hostile place to come was music to my ears."

The fans have always done "hostile" rather well. It may stem from something of an inferiority complex, but with Villa in a state of flux under new management, optimism is higher than for many a day. It will only have been increased further by McLeish's confirmation that his new contract should be signed this week.

Controversy was briefly stirred up when Peter Pannu, the vice-chairman, said the manager's representative, who also advises Jose Mourinho, was asking for too much money and that McLeish was "no Mourinho". "There's absolutely no problem," McLeish said. "He tried a little joke, that's all."

Barcelona they are not. But not even Villa are laughing at the band of Blues brothers now.

Birmingham City v Liverpool is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm

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