Reasons to be cheerful for Arsenal & Birmingham ahead of Wembley showdown

With the Carling Cup final between Arsenal and Birmingham City taking place at Wembley on Sunday, FourFourTwo Performance's Ben Welch assesses exactly how the season's first major final will affect its participants...

It’s that time of year when Arsenal’s liquid football has so often in recent times turned to sludge as their season collapses.

Premier League challenge over. FA Cup dream up in smoke. Champions League glory extinguished and the quest for Carling Cup success prematurely halted.

But, this year is different – they’re still very much in the running on all four fronts.

First on the agenda: The Carling Cup. For the first time since 2007 the Gunners are in the final – all that stands between them and their first trophy since the FA Cup in 2005 are Alex McLeish’s Birmingham.

The Blues reached the final in 2001, where they lost to Liverpool on penalties. Ten years later they’re back amidst a relegation dogfight.

For both teams, winning the Carling Cup could act as a springboard for their respective campaigns.

In the case of the north Londoners, winning the League Cup has proved a fillip for top two Premier League finish, according to new Opta statistics.

Statistically, over the past 10 years the winner of the competition has achieved a 10 per cent increase in points gathered for the remainder of the season, enough to guarantee a runners-up position at least.

Opta data compiled for this weekend’s Carling Cup final reveals that for the successful team the average points haul per league game rises from 1.81 to 1.99 after the final.

The Carling Cup; It's massive - just look at it!

Winning finalists have also gone on to do well in other competitions with Liverpool claiming the FA Cup and UEFA Cup in 2001, Chelsea winning the FA Cup in 2007 and Manchester United winning the Premier League in 2009.

However, a defeat could spell another barren season for Arsene Wenger’s men – over the past decade losing finalists who were still involved in all four major competitions ended up with nothing at the end of the season.

This has already happened to Arsenal following their 2007 defeat to Chelsea – they were knocked out in an FA Cup 5th round replay by Blackburn Rovers and in the last 16 of the Champions League at the hands of PSV Eindhoven. Indeed, a similar fate befell Chelsea 12 months later, when the Blues lost to Spurs at Wembley before crashing out of the FA Cup to Barnsley and losing the Champions League Final to Manchester United in Moscow.

Of the 20 finalists of the last decade, only three have dropped in the table after playing in the final – eight teams have improved their position while the other nine stayed put.

This spells good news for Birmingham, who will also be cheered by the fact that in the past decade the only team to be in a relegation place when they played the final was Blackburn Rovers, who promptly roared up the tabled to finish 10th place after winning the competition in 2002.

The Blues will also be encouraged by the absence of Arsenal’s safe cracking playmaker and inspirational captain Cesc Fabregas.

Birmingham’s stand-in left back Liam Ridgwell will also breath a sigh of relief, with Arsenal’s jet-heeled winger Theo Walcott sidelined with a sprained ankle.

McLeish has seen the blueprint for countering Arsenal’s superbly rhythmic passing. Press, harass and don’t afford the Gunners’ master technicians a moment of peace on the ball.

Get 10 men behind the ball, set up a series of defensive roadblocks, and steer Wenger’s men into a blue and white cul-de-sac.

Without Fabregas’ silverservice deliveries and Walcott’s breakneck speed, Arsenal could struggle to break down McLeish’s tactically astute and disciplined battalion.

The longer the game goes without Arsenal scoring, the more frustrated the Gunners will get and when the going gets tough they have shown they’re prone to collapse.

Arsenal head into this game as the favourites, but given their frustrating knack for imploding at just the wrong time, you just never know what will happen.