GRAB NOT GAB; Message is clear as Bruce wrestles with derby squad selection.
Byline: ALEX DICKEN With Villa email@example.com @alexdicken
IT'S the hottest ticket in town.
Every Aston Villa player is giving that little bit extra in training this week, desperate to be selected against their bitter rivals.
A squad which has secured two victories in the space of a week would normally pick itself, but a Villa Park date with Birmingham City is no ordinary fixture. Manager Steve Bruce and his coaching staff have to find the correct balance - but they will also be considering the tried and tested derby day specialists. Gabby Agbonlahor, anyone? No Villa player in recent history has quite grasped the Second City derby like Agbonlahor. The Villa-supporting striker never misses an opportunity to stick it to Blues and boasts a record of five goals in nine appearances against them.
OPINION Blues fans can't stand the sight of him and won't want him anywhere near the pitch come Sunday.
And it's exactly that train of thought which presents Bruce with such a dilemma. Does he tamper with a winning 18 to accommodate a man who has done little to warrant it this season? Bruce's head will have others in front of Agbonlahor, undoubtedly, but his gut might sway him in the direction of Villa's No.11.
Looking at it, new signing Lewis Grabban appears a far more useful option than Agbonlahor. Grabban has 12 goals in 18 Championship starts this season in comparison to Agbonlahor's 13 in the last five seasons.
It very much appears to be Agbonlahor, Grabban or neither. And if that's the case at least one of Villa's seven substitutes will have to make way. Mark Bunn is a guarantee as Villa's back-up goalkeeper while Axel Tuanzebe, Mile Jedinak and Josh Onomah are expected to take three other spots, taking Bruce's total to 15 including his current starting XI.
The players who are under most pressure from Grabban and Agbonlahor are Glenn Whelan, who has been an unused substitute in each of Villa's last three matches, and rookie attacker Keinan Davis.
Neil Taylor could also be replaced if Bruce wants to accommodate all of his attackers but the manager's preference for defensive cover means the Welshman is almost certain to be held in reserve.
It's worth mentioning Chris Samba, James Bree, Henri Lansbury, Andre Green, Callum O'Hare and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy could all be left out, which is quite frankly ridiculous and shows Villa's embarrassment of riches. If a player is to be the fall guy, it looks as though it will be Whelan given the presence of Tuanzebe and Jedinak.
So, given the opposition, that presents Bruce with a question: Gabby or Grabban? History in the derby or modern day prolificacy? Grabban is the answer. Villa's new signing also has a habit of doing the business against Blues with three in his last five appearances against them, including a goal in his final game for Sunderland in December.
If a decent record against the old enemy is the only justification for Agbonlahor's inclusion on the bench, Grabban's is just as good in recent years.
The striker was signed from Bournemouth in January because Bruce wasn't entirely convinced by the striking talent available to him, he felt he needed more.
He's got more - and a 'proven' striker at this level in the process - so Grabban's selection shouldn't even be up for debate.