The top form teams in the English Premier League clash tonight when Birmingham host Manchester United in an intriguing late kick-off. It is rare enough for Birmingham to be at the head of the eight-match form table, but even more unusually this match heralds the start of a month that is likely to see them outspend their illustrious visitors in the transfer market.
Birmingham's form since their takeover by Carson Yeung Ka-sing has been one of the most surprising features of the first half of the season. They lost their first game following the takeover, 3-1 at Arsenal, but since then they have been undefeated in 12 matches in all competitions.
These are exciting times for the club, and for Hong Kong fans who have adopted the team. When Yeung promised a ?40 million (HK$495 million) transfer kitty for this month, observers expected the money would be needed to try to stave off relegation, but the threat of the drop is virtually non-existent now.
That means there is no pressure to spend the money at a time when high-class players rarely come on to the market. It also means that matches such as tonight's against United can be seen as a bonus.
The key to Birmingham's rise to eighth place in the table has been their ability to consistently beat the teams below them in the table (nine wins from 13 games), but their undefeated run has included draws against Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, and certainly in the latter two games they were unlucky not to take three points.
That record should earn respect from United, especially with the champions having been given a beating by League One leaders Leeds in last week's FA Cup third round. United will be taking nothing for granted now, and they certainly shouldn't against Birmingham.
Much of the credit for the club's excellent showing has gone to the defence, which has been marshalled superbly by Roger Johnson and Scott Dann, both newcomers to the Premier League but playing like veterans. Only Chelsea have kept more clean sheets than Birmingham's nine, so defensive strength is one factor in the Blues' success.
Just as important, however, is the fact that Alex McLeish was able to play 4-4-2 from around the time of Yeung's takeover, having previously been unable to do so with any confidence because of Christian Benitez's regular trips to play for Ecuador in South American World Cup qualifying.
Since Benitez became available to play from the start on a regular basis, Birmingham have developed into more than a team reliant on strong defence, even if Benitez's goal tally of two does not reflect the significance of his impact.
When the Ecuadorean has started, Birmingham have won eight out of 13 and lost only once, and clearly his pace has given the defence an outlet when they have been under pressure as well as opening up opposing defences for the likes of Lee Bowyer to get forward and score goals.
Even on his Premier League debut, in a 17-minute cameo against United at Old Trafford, Benitez came close to equalising for Birmingham, but it is high time he delivered on that promise because Birmingham's only serious weakness is that they are a low-scoring team.
Only three teams have scored fewer goals than Birmingham's 20, and that puts huge pressure on the defence against teams of United's quality.
Birmingham have yet to beat one of the seven teams above them on the table, and in seven attempts they have scored only three goals. Their record in those games is drawn three, lost four, and it is difficult to see them improving tonight.
United have been more prone to off-days this season, but when they have got on the score sheet they have been almost perfect, winning 14 and drawing one of the 15 Premier League games in which they have scored.
All six of United's away wins have been achieved by margins of two goals or more and a repeat performance looks a decent bet tonight at -1 on the Handicap HAD.
They will be breaking new ground if they do that, as Birmingham - uniquely in the Premier League - are yet to have a match decided by more than a single goal either way, but United remain the team most likely to record decisive margins of victory.
Arsenal are just ahead of them overall for the number of games won by two goals or more, but United are clear leaders in the away category. A Birmingham clean sheet is not out of the question, given their record, but really they need to buy better players to give them a realistic chance of challenging the elite teams and for now the best policy is to oppose them against teams above them in the table and back them against lower-placed sides.
Another team worth opposing this weekend are Liverpool, who host Tottenham in tomorrow's big match.
Liverpool's weakness this season has been against the others teams challenging for the Champions League places, with only two wins out of seven.
Tottenham won 2-1 in the reverse fixture, though they will need to improve to do the double as they have yet to win in four away games against top-half teams. The key will be whether Tottenham can score, and they have a good chance as Liverpool have conceded in five of their seven games against the top six.
History says United
Wins for Manchester United in 11 Premier League meetings with Birmingham: 9
United and Birmingham are the only teams with 100 per cent records when opening the scoring: 2
Hard to get past
Birmingham's unbeaten run is the longest in the Premier League this season: 11
Shortlist: Blackpool, Barnsley, Derby, Bari, Deportivo, Gijon.
TOP FIVE BETS
1 Blackpool on Handicap HAD
More closely matched with Cardiff than the odds suggest
2 Barnsley on handicap
Solid profile, with only four defeats in 17 under Mark Robins
3 Derby home win
Strong at home against teams in the bottom half
4 Tottenham on Handicap HAD
Have the scoring power to cause problems for Liverpool
5 Deportivo home win
Can follow up their midweek cup win at Valencia