1 – Pressure? What pressure?
West Bromwich Albion have answered some very testing questions in the last 7 days. Lockdown looked as if it may have derailed the Baggies’ promotion push, with the gap over the chasing pack dwindling over the first two winless post-resumption fixtures. With the way that the fixtures have fallen, Brentford have twice been able to turn the screw on Albion, reducing the Albion lead to a nervy 2 points before each of the Sheffield Wednesday and Hull games. Brentford have been faultless since the resumption, but emphatic victories against Wednesday and Hull sends the message that the Bees will have to maintain that kind of form if they are to take Albion’s place in the Premier League next season.
Despite a mixed bag of performances, high pressure situations bring the best out of Charlie Austin. In the last week he has twice opened the scoring and relieved the immense pressure that some of his teammates are bound to have been feeling. His promotion experience and seemingly unwavering confidence will be vital over the final 5 games of the season. Crunch time, squeaky bum time, money time, whatever you want to call it- it is unequivocally the time for winners and losers to be made. Brentford twice showed their intent, the Baggies twice responded in kind. Bilic will be hoping for another response, as once again the lead will be just 2 points when Albion kick off, after Brentford’s comeback win against Charlton on Tuesday evening. Despite this, Albion can reinstate a 5 point advantage with a third consecutive victory at a time where a 5 point advantage would begin to appear ominous for the team in 3rd place. Incidentally, Albion will replace Leeds at the summit of the Championship table if they avoid defeat against Derby.
Wayne Rooney’s Philip Cocu’s Derby County
While this is a massive game for the Baggies, it is equally as important for Derby County in the context of their season. They have put together an excellent run of form since the January addition of England’s leading goalscorer, Wayne Rooney. Naturally the former Manchester United man attracts the lion’s share of media attention regarding the Rams, but the East Midlands outfit are far more than a one man team. Many Derby fans and neutrals had written Derby’s season off before Rooney took to the field after poor form on the pitch and controversy off it had marred the opening few months of Philip Cocu’s tenure. However since January the Rams have lost just 3 games in a run which has seen them collect more points than either of the current top 2 during that period. One overwhelming positive of Derby’s season has been the promotion of youth to fill the void left by a number of key departures from the squad. Derby’s young talent has played a pivotal role in their success in 2020, with the likes of Jayden Bogle, Louie Sibley and Max Bird standing out, the latter of whom has shone in a midfield partnership alongside the experienced Rooney. While muscling into the playoffs would be an exceptional achievement considering their run-in, this Derby side have finally found their feet. Cocu has weathered a storm of off-field challenges and has now started to instil an identity unto this Rams side, who are 10 league places better off than they were at the turn of the year.
One of the principal contributors to the Rams’ unsatisfying league position has been their away form, which is comfortably the worst of any top half side. They have won just 5 matches on the road this season, which has somewhat cancelled out their excellent total of 41 points at home, which is second only to Brentford’s 44. There is hope that Derby have turned a corner away from home, with 3 of their 5 away wins coming in their last 3 away games. Part of this upturn in form may be due to the fact there is next to no home advantage at the moment, or perhaps Cocu has stumbled on a winning formula away from the East Midlands. In any case, Derby County arrive with a head of steam in search of their fourth consecutive away win at crucial point in their season.
3 – Selection headaches for Albion?
The visit of Derby County represents a much tougher test than the Baggies previous two outings, which they came through with flying colours. Team selection is, therefore, of paramount importance. It seems as though the extensive options the Baggies have in the attacking third have all started to hit their stride at this pivotal point in the season. Kamil Grosicki helped himself to a first Albion goal after benefiting from a Matheus Pereira pass that is genuinely as good as any assist I’ve seen in English football this season. Diangana was up to his old tricks and managed to cap off a second half cameo against Hull with a lovely near post finish which wrong-footed the Hull goalkeeper. Matheus Pereira’s output of 5 goal contributions in his last 2 games is the kind of form which makes his transfer fee the bargain of the season. Filip Krovinovic has added some structure to the Albion midfield and Rekeem Harper has allowed Jake Livermore a much needed rest. Without even mentioning Phillips, Edwards or Robinson, it is difficult to shoehorn all of Albion’s attacking talent into a matchday squad, let alone a starting XI. Whoever does start on Wednesday evening will have to pick up some of the defensive slack, as Max Bird and Wayne Rooney will simply dictate the game if not disrupted by an active press.
While on the subject of selection, Ahmed Hegazi made a potentially difficult defensive choice very simple with his sending off against Hull. The oft-employed centre-back pairing of Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi should rear its head for the first time since the resumption of football, unless one of them is unavailable, in which case Dara O’Shea would slot into his natural position. Kieran Gibbs’ injury means that there will be a second enforced change to the backline which kept a clean sheet against Wednesday and leaked two goals to Hull. Conor Townsend’s involvement may see Darnell Furlong return at right-back to offer a more attacking full-back presence, although 3 changes to a back 4 is never ideal heading into an important game.
One man who is sure to start is Romaine Sawyers. The St Kitts and Nevis international has rediscovered the form which saw him dazzle Albion fans in the opening half of the season. You would also expect Jake Livermore to return alongside him. Bilic then faces a selection headache regarding Rekeem Harper, who has been nothing if not solid in his two-game run. The Croatian may opt for the youthful enthusiasm of Harper without the ball in a midfield battle which will see Albion spinning a fair few plates trying to stifle Rooney and Bird, while also not allowing the promising Louie Sibley too much space between the lines. Alternatively Krovinovic may retain his place and test a 34 year old Wayne Rooney’s defensive capabilities. The Baggies have plenty of options and Slaven Bilic will certainly not panic should he have to change things as the game wears on. I expect this to be a hard fought game and the optimist in me will predict a narrow but vital 2-1 win to take Albion to the top of the tree once more.