Albion’s 29th February defeat against Wigan was a small step in the wrong direction when they could have made a giant leap towards promotion. On a leap day where none of the league leaders who played in England’s top 4 divisions registered victories, Wigan made the most of an off day for a Sawyersless Albion and picked up a rare away victory. As far as Baggies fans are concerned, another rarity nowadays in football is a trip to Wembley, but after two fairly routine performances in London, West Bromwich Albion find themselves 180 minutes (at least) from another day out in the capital. Having enjoyed watching local rivals Wolves and Villa endure unsuccessful visits to football HQ recently, many Baggies will be itching to get back to Wembley themselves, 12 years on from their last Wembley trauma.
The FA Cup is not and has never been the priority for Albion this season; however a last 16 tie with an out of sorts Newcastle United is a golden opportunity to get within touching distance of a third new Wembley appearance. The Toon Army have not seen their side reach this stage of the competition since 2006 and Steve Bruce’s men required replays to overcome both Rochdale and Oxford in rounds three and four respectively. However cup form will be of little concern to the former Aston Villa manager and target of the infamous cabbage. The Magpies have recorded one league win since Christmas, a dismal run of form which has seen them slowly creep closer to the relegation zone. After wins for Norwich and Watford this weekend, the race for survival is well and truly on, and therefore Newcastle could do without the 425 mile midweek trip to play a side who have won 5 of their last 7 games.
The root of Newcastle’s struggles this season has been an alarming lack of goals. A lot has been made of record signing Joelinton scoring just once so far in the Premier League and cameo appearances from local boy Andy Carroll and Albion fan favourite Dwight Gayle are yet to trouble the scorers. However, fate may have it that the latter of those goalless goalscorers gets a chance to correct that statistic against his former club on Tuesday night.
Newcastle failed to score a single league goal in February, despite the extra day on which to do so. Be that as it may, goals in the FA Cup have been easier to come by for the Magpies, netting eight times in four games against lower league opposition. While this is a far cry from a lowly 0.86 goals per game in the Premier League, it is important to note that all of these goals came against sides considerably lower down the EFL pyramid than the Baggies, who are separated from the Magpies by just 7 places.
Albion, who are yet to concede a goal in the FA Cup this season, will ring the changes in this Fifth Round tie, Slaven Bilic confirmed on Monday Afternoon. There will be a long-awaited return to the starting XI for left-back Kieran Gibbs, who has not played since New Year’s Day, which will give a rest to Conor Townsend, one of a growing list of Albion players who have improved under Bilić’s stewardship. A debut could also be on the cards Lee Peltier, should he get the nod ahead of Darnell Furlong. An injury to Ahmed Hegazi means that any two of Semi Ajayi, Dara O’Shea, Kyle Bartley, and Jack Fitzwater will likely make up the back four, with the former probably due a rest. Charlie Austin claimed that a storm in a teacup was made of his storming off the pitch against Preston, but if he is frustrated at a lack of game time he will probably have a chance to obtain some catharsis under the lights on Tuesday night. There may also be a chance new signing Kamil Grosicki to kick-start his Albion career, while once-regulars Matt Phillips and Kyle Edwards will be eager to impress.
This game does have a little bit of a ‘do we have to?’ feeling about it for both clubs at the moment, which is not helped by an insistence from the organisers to play the tie on a Tuesday night. If there are concerns that the magic of the cup is waning, then it makes little sense to shoehorn the last 16 fixtures between two league fixtures at pivotal points in the season for all teams involved. It will, however give Albion a chance to test their strength in depth and give a run out to the likes of Chris Brunt, who looked like he may not play for Albion again just a few weeks ago.
There is, of course, the added incentive that this is a legitimate chance for the Baggies to test themselves against Premier League opposition, the like of which they hope to face weekly next season. If the dress rehearsal goes well and Albion reach the quarter final, there will be a desire to harness the good feeling it creates use it to propel the club to promotion- as the run to the FA Cup semi-final in 2008 did. Will the second string Baggies fall short this time or will Albion prolong the Magpies 64 year long wait for silverware? I’ll predict an Albion victory, with Stone Cold Charlie Austin notching the first of a 2-1 score line – and that’s the bottom line.