Birmingham City may be in dire straits, but Mikael Forssell is enjoying his football again
With two games left, clash with fellow-strugglers Fulham will be crucial
By Anssi Miettinen in Birmingham
If Birmingham City are relegated from the English Premiership at the end of this season, it will not be for lack of confidence or hunger for goals from their Finnish striker Mikael Forssell.
"I know I've been playing well. I've even been winning balls in the air. And I get them, because our midfield isn't always that good at distributing on the deck."
Forssell's buoyant self-confidence is backed up by his tally of goals. He has scored eight times* in the league this season, even though he got little match-time in the autumn owing to a hernia operation, and City have also rotated their strikers with some vigour.
Since February, however, Forssell has been in the starting line-up in nearly every game.
And at the beginning of March he repaid the manager's trust. A hat-trick against Tottenham in a comprehensive 4-1 win was Forssell's first in England. The memory of it still brings a smile to his face.
"It was great. I've been over here now for ten years, and I've scored a brace of goals in quite a few games and come close to getting a third. When I've stopped playing I'm sure it will mean even more to me."
Forssell has enjoyed himself at Birmingham all the more since the club's long-serving manager Steve Bruce left for Wigan Athletic in November.
Bruce was replaced by the former Rangers and Scotland manager Alex McLeish.
"I respect the manager a lot, and I think it is probably mutual. I'm happy that McLeish sees in me the things I have always tried to prove on the field."
It was not always thus under Bruce, even though the manager had brought Forssell to Birmingham on loan from Chelsea in the 2003-2004 season, when he scored 17 Premiership goals in 32 appearances.
More recently, the striker was getting few playing opportunities, following a couple of lengthy injury lay-offs, and the personal chemistry between the two men was not always good.
"I wasn't the only member of the squad who didn't really gel with Bruce", admits Forssell.
But the player says that the new man in charge always manages to make his critical comments constructive ones: "McLeish understands football, of course, but he also understands people."
What left the 27-year-old striker particularly frustrated during the later years under Steve Bruce was that the manager would explain his non-selection by injury, when Forssell himself felt he was in match condition.
As well as the changes in man-management, Forssell is pleased that the new boss has introduced a more attacking approach to the game. For an out-and-out striker, this means more playing time and more goal-scoring chances.
"We have been starting all our games with two up front lately, and that has made a big difference."
Still, goals conceded also count, and this past season Birmingham City have been hampered by a perilously leaky defence, which has shipped 59 goals in 35 matches to date.
The defensive weakness was very much in evidence in last weekend's derby against Aston Villa. Villa gave their home fans a treat and ran riot with a 5-1 thrashing of their local rivals.
Forssell came on after an hour, by which time it was already 3-0, and he scored Birmingham's consolation goal, but it was not really much consolation.
"Unfortunately there have been too many individual errors. Silly things like a defender passing careless back to the keeper and a striker nipping in and taking advantage. And we've been letting in too many goals from set-pieces. Simple failure to mark people properly."
The defence will have to sharpen up if Birmingham are to avoid the drop by climbing above Bolton or Reading.
The search for points will not start on an overly easy note, as Birmingham play host to Liverpool at St. Andrew's today.
"Naturally we'll be hoping that they have their minds more on the second leg of their European Champions League semi-final against Chelsea than the League", says Forssell.
He also notes that Bolton at least have a tough run-in (away to Tottenham, home to Sunderland, away to Chelsea), but he acknowledges that relying on the difficulties of others is not the best way of getting out of trouble.
At the end of the two previous seasons, Forssell was all ready to be transferred elsewhere, but the club has wanted to keep him on their books. Once again, his address for next season is open.
"I guess we'll have to see what happens to the club - do we stay up or do we go down to the Championship. This [Birmingham] is one alternative."
Forssell also confides that there has been interest shown in him from Germany.
"I played there for a while [16 games for Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2003], and things went well, but on the other hand playing in England is pretty special. Things work here and it is also important to see just how closely followed this league is. There is interest in the Premiership all over the world, and in that respect England is in a class of its own."
In any event, Forssell says he is not thinking about next season, but concentrating on the final games of this campaign.
"I've enjoyed things under the new manager, and now I'm just trying to get the most out of the present."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.4.2008
*TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in Saturday's paper, before the weekend matches. The goals total is now nine, after Mikael Forssell got the opener in Birmingham's 2-2 draw at home to Liverpool last Saturday. That result, and in particular the fact that Birmingham squandered a 2-0 lead, did the club no favours. Bolton and Reading both bagged draws from their tricky away matches, and this left Birmingham in 18th place in the table, below the relegation line and just two points clear of Fulham, who managed to beat Manchester City away. Birmingham's trip to Fulham on May 3rd now has massive significance for both clubs: relegation is not just about honour - there is a huge financial gulf between the Premier League and the Championship. Were Forssell to score a brace or better in a win at Craven Cottage, the goals could be worth millions. Birmingham end their season with a home encounter with Blackburn Rovers, and will be eager to avenge the 2-1 defeat they suffered at Ewood Park in October.
Matches still to be played by the clubs most in danger:
Bolton (33 points): Sunderland (h), Chelsea (a)
Reading (33 points): Tottenham (h), Derby (a)
Birmingham (32 points): Fulham (a), Blackburn (h)
Fulham (30 points): Birmingham (h), Portsmouth (a)
Derby (11 points) are already relegated, and two other clubs will join them. Middlesbrough (36) and Wigan (37) are not completely safe yet, but it would require some strange results to see either of them make the drop.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Forssell hat-trick raises Birmingham hopes of Premiership survival (3.3.2008)
Mikael Forssell profile at Birmingham City
Mikael Forssell (Wikipedia)
ANSSI MIETTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat