Chief Sports Writer Hyder Jawad on the intertwined fates of the region's big three...

There was talk earlier in the season that the Aston Villa-Birmingham City fixture is losing its novelty. That myth will be shattered when the teams meet at Villa Park on April 16.

In previous seasons, the match was primarily about local pride but, this time, it will have a significant bear-ing on the fight to avoid relegation. Villa are not in free-fall but they have lost anything that might resemble momentum.

Could the unthinkable be possible: that Birmingham and Villa will fight each other to avoid relegation?

It is possible. Portsmouth are playing well enough to suggest that they will survive, while West Bromwich Albion are looking a shadow of the team that avoided relegation on the final day of last season.

That could leave Birmingham and Villa battling for 17th position.

What a difference a point can make. Birmingham were emotionally bruised before they played Chelsea last Saturday and yet, after drawing 0-0 against the champions, there is now a quiet determination at St Andrew's.

Villa, by contrast, lost 5-0 away to Arsenal and appear to have lost all heart. Their manager, David O'Leary, is not widely popular among Villa supporters and disillusionment is spreading among supporters like a disease.

It would take a lot for the course of the relegation battle to change, but consider the landscape if Birmingham defeat Bolton Wanderers at home tonight, Wigan Athletic on Saturday and Villa on April 16, while Villa also lose to Albion next Sunday.

Then, Villa would only be a point ahead of Birmingham with four matches each to play. Birmingham, with their momentum, would fancy their chances of overtaking Villa - and Villa under O'Leary have rarely been known for their battling qualities.

It is likely that Villa will survive, however, but that might not be enough to save O'Leary, who has not taken the club any farther forwards since replacing Graham Taylor in May 2003.

But auguries are not great for Birmingham, or for Albion, who both must be wondering how Portsmouth managed such a revival in recent matches.

What Birmingham need now is to put an emphasis on the fighting qualities that served them so well from the time Steve Bruce took over, in December 2001, to when Robbie Savage left for Blackburn Rovers in January 2005.

That means the inclusion of players like Stephen Clemence and Olivier Tebily (proven soldiers), and the exclusion of players like Nicky Butt and Mario Melchiot.

Albion's problem is more subtle. They can play well, even against strong teams (note their performance against Tottenham Hotspur last month), but too often drop points with outrageous errors and a lack of confidence.

How they must rue their failure to beat Blues last month, when they missed chance after chance and only drew. The two points dropped could be the difference between survival and relegation.

Now that Zoltan Gera has returned, perhaps Albion will turn their possession into chances and their chances into goals. And perhaps the defenders will rise to the challenge.

This Albion team is stronger than the one that survived a year ago and would, under normal circumstances, be good enough to remain in the Premiership. But these are not normal circumstances.

Whatever happens to Villa, this has not been a good season for O'Leary.

He has used every excuse in the book (including, laugh-ably, the one about the local reporter trying to undermine the club) and presided over the embarrassing 3-0 defeat away to Doncaster Rovers in the League Cup in November.

It says much for what little he has achieved that he might keep the club in the Premier-ship and still lose his job, while Bruce and Bryan Robson might endure relegation but keep their jobs.

If Villa are relegated, O'Leary will go down as their worst manager since Billy McNeill. If Birmingham go down, Bruce will still be their best manager in a generation. Ditto, Bryan Robson, even if Albion go down.

The next five weeks will be the most exciting in West Midlands football since the summer of 2002. But exciting does not necessarily mean salubrious.

Danny Blanchflower, formerly of Villa and Tottenham Hotspur, famously said: "The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom."

What would Blanchflower make of three West Midlands clubs fighting to avoid relegation? Does that count as a pursuit of glory?

West Bromwich Albion would certainly say so.