Tables turned between Birmingham and Brentford for likely cagey opener

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Calling Birmingham City and Brentford’s relationship a rivalry might be a slight jump, but there is a symbolic distance between the two clubs as well as the 114 miles.

Heated third tier promotion races in the 1990s preceded Martin Grainger, Nicky Forster and later DJ Campbell moves from Braemar Road to B9.

Birmingham then fluked a shootout victory over the Bees en route to League Cup glory in 2010-11, before again pinching prime performers Jota and Maxime Colin, as well as cult hero Harlee Dean.

While the Blues have tended to have the stronger hand historically, tables are turning and Brentford have finished on average 11 places above the West Midlanders in the last four seasons – they are widely tipped to outperform them this year, too.

The West Londoners have played sumptuous football for much of the previous decade yet current head coach, Thomas Frank, has turned them into the complete package.

The Dane has ingrained into his side excellent organisation and added physicality, centre-backs Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock have certainly brought those respective qualities since joining last summer.

They prepared for this week’s expensive sale of star striker Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa by signing Ivan Toney – strong, persistent and ruthless – who should step up well after starring for Peterborough in League One.

The club looks less prepared for another key exit, though, with Saïd Benrahma likely to miss the opener amid reports of a Premier League move – it is hard to imagine Tariqe Fosu matching the Algerian’s dazzling quality on the left of the front-three.

With uncertainty over goalkeeper David Raya, the Bees may not start the season at full strength, so there is hope for Aitor Karanka.

The new Birmingham boss inherits a squad that conceded 18 league goals in nine post-restart encounters and must flex his organisational muscles.

Luckily, the Spaniard did just that in 2015-16, when his Middlesbrough outfit conceded just 31 goals, fewer than any second tier side since West Brom in 2001-02.

Defender George Friend and midfielder Adam Clayton started a combined 80 league games that year and although they have since declined physically, both should provide the leadership and positional awareness to help Birmingham keep their shape.

Clayton must challenge Dutch destroyer Maikel Kieftenbeld to partner Croatian talent Ivan Šunjić in midfield while Friend is deployed at centre-back to provide a calming presence next to the aggressive Dean.

Friend and Dean hope to build on encouraging performances in a 1-0 friendly loss at Tottenham, as does 6’4” goalkeeper Andrés Prieto, who signs from Espanyol.

It was at the other end, though, where Blues struggled last week, when they began competitive action with a 1-0 EFL Cup defeat to Cambridge in which 18-year-old Adan George debuted up top.

The more experienced Lukas Jutkiewicz missed out with a quad issue but the former Burnley front-man could be in contention here.

“Jukey is doing well, he is taking part in some of the training sessions with the team. I don’t know if he will be ready to start, but hopefully he will be in the squad. I will have a chat with him and the medical staff, see how he is.” – Karanka

Jutkiewicz can be the division’s best target man when paired with a quick, persistent striker, but he lacks the mobility to lead attacks individualistically and thus might not fit into Karanka’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.

The 31-year-old may represent more of a back-up plan this term, so it is imperative that Blues sign a striker with the strength to play back to goal, the touch to hold the ball up and the mobility to run the channels – oh, and a few goals wouldn’t go amiss either.

Names have been linked, including last season’s loanee Scott Hogan, but signing somebody with all the required qualities in time to influence Saturday’s game could be a big ask.

Blues also look short on the left wing, because speedy wide man Jonathan Leko is not expected to be fit in time and right-footed Jeremie Bela’s qualities – direct running and accurate crossing – make him more effective as a classic winger than an inverted one.

Should left-footed Iván Sánchez debut on the right, though, he might pose a greater goal threat than Bela and begin to forge a strong understanding with Colin, who is among the division’s strongest right-backs, like Henrik Dalsgaard.

The latter made the bench in Denmark’s 0-0 draw with England on Tuesday but Christian Nørgaard, who started ahead of Spurs recruit Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, starred at the base of midfield and could do likewise on his return to club action.

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Nørgaard will dictate a midfield flanked by two of Emiliano Marcondes, Mathias Jensen and Jan Zamburek; the former two are the more established options but the latter stood out most in last week’s underwhelming EFL Cup display against Wycombe, which saw Brentford progress on penalties after a fortuitous 1-1 draw.

Any combination Thomas Frank selects will see the Bees control possession, so it will be up to Birmingham’s double-pivot to block passing lanes into Fosu, Toney and Bryan Mbuemo, who could soon become the only remaining component of last season’s stellar “BMW” attacking trio with Benrahma and Watkins.

The visiting favourites would miss Benrahma significantly and Birmingham will be re-organised but short up top, so this has the makings of a low-scoring opener.

That would suit Karanka, who must hope his side can escape a moment of brilliance from Mbuemo or clinical finishing from Toney to keep his first league game plan intact.

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