As the dust settles from a heavyweight clash at Elland Road, the conveyor belt that is the Championship fixture list throws another tough match Albion’s way. The last time these two sides met it was in the Premier League, half a decade ago. It may have been a while ago but the match lives long in the memory. You know the one- the Pepe Mel days, that Amalfitano goal, Albion scoring a late winner, only for Cardiff to score an even later equaliser, the dressing room incident between Morrison and Berahino…yeah, that’s the one. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge of the Bluebirds that day, wonder what he’s up to now?
1 – Now is the time for character.
Albion’s unbeaten start is over, they do bleed after all. The Baggies earned plaudits for what was a very assured second half performance against a strong Leeds side, but that loss meant that Albion’s first visit to the summit of the Championship lasted just 3 days. Many people praised the character of this Slaven Bilic side during the 9 game unbeaten run in which they gained 15 points from losing positions. That, of course, takes character, but you may question how many of those salvaged points could be attributed to riding the crest of the unbeaten wave? When one wave crashes, it is inevitably followed by another and if you don’t refocus, this league will wash you up. The true character of this side will not be judged on how it responds to falling behind in games, but rather how it responds to disappointment in the context of the season. Losing to a promotion rival on Tuesday night was bitterly disappointing, but Albion fans will now be intrigued to see what the immediate response is.
2- Cardiff going under the radar?
With two losses in their first three games, Cardiff began their season at the wrong end of the table. An unbeaten run of 7 games since that point, including an unbeaten September, has steadied the ship in South Wales and the Bluebirds now find themselves just 2 points outside the playoff positions. Cardiff were amongst the preseason favourites for automatic promotion following their minimum 38 game stay in the top flight. Despite relegation at the first time of asking, Cardiff impressed at times last season, with pundits eating their words after pencilling Cardiff into 20th spot before a ball was kicked. It was an uphill struggle throughout the season and ultimately the Premier League was a bridge too far. The 2017-18 Championship runners-up fell short last season, but once again find themselves in a division they are better equipped for, which is cause for optimism. The primary source of optimism for Cardiff fans, however, is the manager. Neil Warnock.
3 – Warm Welcome for Warnock?
Cardiff’s early season form this season has been largely positive, with 4 wins, 4 draws and two losses, totalling 16 points. This form is in stark contrast to the beginning of last season, when the Bluebirds picked up just 5 points from their opening 10 games. When many clubs would have pressed the reset button, Cardiff decided Warnock was the best man for the job. The veteran manager, who is now firmly in the twilight of his career, also received a vote of confidence following relegation- and why wouldn’t he? Warnock’s EFL record speaks for itself and there is no manager who boasts more promotions (8) in English football. The Yorkshireman, however, is not a popular figure at the Hawthorns. Most Albion fans will not need reminding, but some younger Baggies will not remember the Battle of Brammal Lane. It is in infamous afternoon that saw Warnock’s Sheffield United side unable to finish the Division One match due to having less than 7 players on the field. Ultimately West Brom were awarded a 3-0 win and Sheffield United received a £10,000 fine. To this day questions are still raised over how the game ended, with many people questioning Warnock’s potential role in the Blades’ lack of players- particularly when Michael Brown and Robert Ullathorne limped off in the 77th and 82nd minutes respectively. Albion started that match 11 points behind leaders Wolves, with 8 games to go- but ended up securing promotion behind champions Manchester City. While it started an Albion surge towards the finish line in the 2001/2002 season, 16th March 2001 is not a day which is fondly remembered at the Hawthorns and the same can be said for Neil Warnock.
Cardiff will harbour hopes of a promotion push, but their current problem is glaringly obvious. 13 points from a possible 15 at home is a league-high and is certainly promotion form, however the Bluebirds are yet to win on the road. Two losses and three draws on their travels is more like relegation form, with just 4 teams collecting less points away from home. While Albion lost midweek at Elland Road, they do still boast an unbeaten home record for the campaign. The Baggies have been beaten at home just twice this calendar year and there few places more difficult to pick up your first away win of the season than the Hawthorns. Bilic will be hoping his side bounce back formidably on Saturday, in what is their first Saturday 3pm kick off since August. I expect Albion to show their character and record their third home win of the season against a Cardiff side who don’t travel well. 3-1 Albion, a fresh Charlie Austin to score first.