John Carew, out of form and favour since Gerard Houllier arrived at Aston Villa in September, is poised for a dramatic recall in tomorrow's Second City derby-cum-relegation six-pointer at St Andrew's.
The 6ft 7in Norway striker last started a match against Arsenal in November. Now, with Villa's options restricted by suspensions to Emile Heskey and Ashley Young, Carew is on standby to face Birmingham. "He looked very good in training this morning," Houllier said yesterday. "He scored goals, looked fit and has had a very good week. He will be involved. Maybe he'll start. We'll wait and see."
Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, would happily trade the moral high ground of being the better team for a second supposedly undeserved victory in the space of six weeks over Villa. When the rivals tangled in a combustible Carling Cup quarter-final at St Andrew's, Birmingham gained a 2-1 win to add to their 0-0 draw in the Premier League at Villa Park. Of all the defeats Villa have suffered under Houllier's tenure – and there have been eight in the league alone – it pains the Frenchman most because he maintains they were the superior side.
But McLeish, whose players could be facing a Villa team occupying bottom place at kick-off if West Ham and Wigan were to win today, said of their neighbours' decline from three consecutive sixth-place finishes to the relegation zone: "Nothing surprises me in this League. You've got to respect it. This season has been crazy – the quality and competitiveness have gone up and only five points separate West Ham and [12th-placed] Everton. We're one of a few in that mix."
Houllier is still bemoaning the cup exit – overlooking the fact that Birmingham edged the October stalemate – but McLeish said: "We won the game, that's the bottom line." Aware that Birmingham had lost six successive matches to Villa before this season, he added: "It was a long time coming. In a couple of games that have gone against us, we've been the better team. Maybe he's got a point, but in the end we were more the effective team as we went through."
The Villa manager was not, of course, prepared to countenance the notion of defeat but acknowledged that Villa were in "a bad position". While he has detected "a lot of improvement" since the 3-3 draw at Chelsea a fortnight ago, he remains concerned by their record of losing 14 points from leading positions and the failure to keep a clean sheet since October.
He returned to oversee training yesterday following a trip to France, where he attempted to tie up a £5m deal for Jean Makoun. The midfielder's return to the Lyons team has seen them surge from the lower reaches to fourth place, and Houllier is hopeful he can inspire a similar charge by Villa. "He's exactly what we need – he can win the ball, sit in front of the defence and also go box to box. There's a lot of positive dialogue, but we haven't got him yet."
Carew is likely to partner Gabriel Agbonlahor, one of the few Brummies involved in the game. Agbonlahor should cause particular anxiety in the home backline, having scored in each of his previous three outings at St Andrew's. Facing them may be Czech international centre-back Martin Jiranek, who is in line to replace the injured Scott Dann. McLeish may also give a debut to former England winger David Bentley, hinting that the on-loan Tottenham player could play on the left, thereby pitting him against Villa's loan right-back from Spurs, Kyle Walker, on his home debut.