Sorensen seems to be the hardest hurdle for Brum

Aston Villa v Birmingham City: Danish keeper believes Villa can match ire with ire in blood-and-thunder derby
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The Independent Football

The big one, the game we have all been waiting for, the 90 minutes that will at last decide who will be king and who will be peasant after months of a phoney war. And yes, Arsenal v Chelsea won't be bad, either.

So they are saying in England's Second City, which today can be forgiven for flashing an even more disparaging sneer than usual towards the First City on what has been hyped as Decisive Sunday. For Birmingham can legitimately claim that today's lunchtime derby does not have to rely on anything so coarse as Premiership positions to make it an affair of scarf-gnawing magnitude.

Their own cross-city challenge would grab the imagination if it was in the first round of the LDV Vans Trophy (southern section). But today's Brummie-fest at Villa Park is anything but meaningless, with Aston Villa desperate for revenge and Birmingham desperate for something even sweeter called Premiership points. If anything, the tie is spicier than ever.

But for one man, the hotter the merrier, and if the City fans are intent on chucking everything but goodwill his way... well, as they say in this part of the world, "Bostin". Or Thomas Sorensen would say that if he wasn't from Odense. Instead, the goalkeeper who has been a focal point of Villa's eye-catching start says: "I hope the City fans do taunt me, because that tends to have a good effect on my game."

A touch of reverse psychology perhaps, and unlikely to stop the Blues supporters who have the howler of another Scandinavian No 1 - Finland's Peter Enckleman - in perpetual replay as their cherished memory of a 3-0 victory two seasons ago. Maybe, although it can't be denied that the only goalkeeper ever to oust Peter Schmeichel from a starting XI - Denmark, 2000 - has backed up his bravado with deeds. Three years ago in the cauldron of a Geordie-Mackem derby, Sorensen had the effrontery to save a penalty from one Alan Shearer. At St James' Park. In the 85th minute. With Sunderland leading 2-1.

"These are the moments that keep you going as a goalkeeper," said Sorensen, recalling the afternoon he became a North-east immortal. "We can't score many goals and put in many tackles, so we have to wait for our moment. Every time I took a goal-kick that day, 50,000 shouted and booed. But then I shut them up and they ended up applauding me."

A similar experience today would be some feat indeed, especially with Birmingham hell-bent on continuing the unbeaten sequence that spookily stretches back 17 years to the day when Villa last beat their greatest rivals in the League. "There shouldn't be any need for a team talk on Sunday," said Sorensen. "Moving around the city this week you can sense that this match means more than any other. People who usually aren't interested come up and wish you luck.

"It's something special, maybe not the game itself but the atmosphere and the build-up. It always tends to be a big brawl rather than a pretty football match, but that's part of a derby and the passion and the determination. We've got plenty of that to get the win Villa have been after for so long."

Last year's failure hurts most of all, especially for Sorensen, who saw two goals slip past as the home side threw away a seemingly impregnable lead. "We have learned from that," he said. "They definitely shouldn't be thinking of giving us a 2-0 cushion this time."

Not that Sorensen is expecting such generosity, even from opponents who have made a wretched beginning to a campaign that was brimming with promise at the outset. "We are surprised, what with all Birmingham's spending in the summer. But they're in a better position than we were at this stage last season and we all know how that turned out [Villa eventually finished sixth]. I can't see them finishing down there. But you can never say never. They need to work their way out of it, just like we did."

Easier said than done, because the main problem at St Andrews has been the baffling ineffectiveness of Steve Bruce's high-profile signings, and there is a palpable unease that the money that might have delivered salvation in the January window is already spent. Sorensen is well-placed to cast judgement on Birmingham's biggest let-down, because if he is the inevitable Great Dane of the Midlands, then Jesper Gronkjaer is the Dane who grates.

Unsurprisingly, Sorensen is quick to defend his international team-mate, just as he is to dismiss speculation that Gronkjaer's well-publicised departure next month has anything to with a fall-out with Bruce. "Jesper just hasn't fitted in with their style of playing, and it's definitely nothing off the field that will be the cause of him leaving," he said. "He is a good friend, we live quite close, and I know he's very happy and settled. And, of course, if he scores on Sunday everything changes."

The 28-year-old uttered this with tongue firmly wedged in cheek as he admitted that Gronkjaer's self-confessed weakness as a tackler wouldn't make him ideally suited to a contest that he is braced to be "all blood and guts". As ever, Robbie Savage will be wherever the studs are raging, wherever the whistle is blowing, although Sorensen believes Villa have their own ire to match ire. "If Birmingham have Savage then we have Gavin McCann," said Sorensen about the tenacious midfielder he followed from Sunderland last year. "It is important to have that kind of edge, someone who is prepared to put the foot in. You can't just have pretty footballers, although I'm not saying Robbie and Gavin aren't pretty..." Before Savage's hairdresser could issue the writs, Sorensen moved swiftly on. "All I'm saying is that it is going to be an immensely physical challenge. [Emile] Heskey's going to try to do our centre-halves, Juan [Pablo Angel] is going to be doing theirs and Gavin and Robbie will be going at it in the middle... so, boy, it's going to be intense. Be sure that Birmingham will have to fight hard."

And if they are to earn even more local bragging rights as well as three drop-defying points, they will need to find a way past Sorensen. Which isn't straightforward. Just ask Alan Shearer. Last November, the Villa keeper denied him the points in the dying minutes again. From the penalty spot. In front of 50,000 Geordies. At St James' Park.

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