1- Time for Heroes
The notion of a season defining game can seem a little trite or inaccurate over the course of a 46 game campaign. Trite it may be, but it is wholly accurate to call this West Bromwich Albion’s season definer. Albion have amassed 81 points and require just seven more to return to the Premier League. Three of those points are on offer at 5pm on Tuesday evening when they host a Fulham side who have certainly not given up hope of taking the Baggies’ automatic promotion place. Albion do not have to win this game as mathematically speaking a draw and two wins in any order would constitute a successful sprint finish. However one phrase which rears its head at the business end of the season is points on the board. This is a chance to get 3 vital points on the board to end Fulham’s automatic promotion push and ask a serious question of their West London rivals Brentford. The Bees have had the luxury of kicking off before the Baggies in their last 4 fixtures and Albion answered the Brentford questions resoundingly until a spate of guilt-edge chances for Austin, Krovinovic and Diangana eluded the net against Blackburn. This game defines Albion’s season as it is their chance to deliver a telling blow before they get dragged into a dog fight.
The visit of the Cottagers also presents an opportunity for the Baggies to do something they have not managed to do this season: record a win against the rest of the current top 4. A record of 3 draws and 2 losses against those sides is surprisingly poor for an Albion team who have lost just 6 games all season – comfortably the lowest in the league. Slaven Bilic’s team have been excellent at times this season and this squad will live long in the memory, but simply put, if you cannot beat the best, you cannot be the best. The fact of the matter is, if Albion were to lose this game and possibly go on to not clinch promotion then it would be difficult to say that they deserved promotion as a side with no wins against their most dangerous rivals. That is why this fixture is season defining. It offers Albion the chance to take a huge stride towards promotion at the most vital point in the season and prove their quality against a formidable opponent.
It seems almost unjust that a game of this magnitude is to be played behind closed doors. Every Albion fan will no doubt spend all day on Tuesday totally consumed either by the fear of losing or the excitement of winning. Then will come 90 minutes of unbridled anxiety, perhaps exacerbated by the agony of defeat, or perhaps remedied by the ecstasy of victory. Then will come the inquiry or the celebration. Then the anxiety will return on Wednesday morning before Brentford host Preston. Yes it is excruciating at times, but I am certain most Albion fans would take these nerves and this emotion, over the odd 1-0 victory and 10th place finish in the Pulis era. Strap yourselves in for a massive 10 days we will never forget, one way or another, Baggies fans.
2 -Fulham Flying?
Albion’s opponents arrive at the Hawthorns buoyed by a 4 game winning run and with their automatic promotion hopes out of their hands but still credible. Championship top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic marked his return from suspension with a goal against Cardiff on Friday night. He will be looking to finish the season strong after his teammates won 3 from 3 in his absence and bailed him out for what was, at best, a cynical elbow on Leeds’ Ben White. The Cottagers have also kept 3 clean sheets in their last 3 games and while defensive solidity has not been a defining characteristic of this Fulham side, their back line will be difficult to breach on Tuesday evening.
Fulham’s season is almost a mirror image of Albion’s last season. Relegated from the Premier League despite a minor upturn in form under the guidance of a popular former player? Check. Appointed said popular former player despite their inexperience? Check. Premier League quality in the squad? Check. An over-reliance on goals from clinical strikers to bail out fairly mediocre performances? Check. Can’t quite find the consistency needed to break into the top 2? Check. Fulham could yet lose a derby in the playoffs to see them confined to another year in the Championship in what would cap off a suspiciously similar turn of events.
While the West London side’s form has been promising, they themselves will view this game as season defining as it will mathematically determine whether they are set for the lottery of the playoffs or still in the hunt for automatic promotion with two games to go. Fulham fans will also be feeling some of the customary anxiety which accompanies that big game feeling. Unfortunately for those Fulham fans, they have already witnessed losses to Leeds and Brentford since the restart and after failing to take points off those two contenders, it will either be a case of third time lucky or 3 strikes and you’re out for the Cottagers.
3 – Crucial team selection
Against Brentford, Albion opted for a 4231 formation which left Sawyers and Livermore slightly understaffed in a midfield battle. Bilic cannot afford to make the same mistake again against Fulham. If any kind of philosophy has emanated from Scott Parker’s side during his first full season in charge then it is one of possession and dictating the play. It makes perfect sense for Filip Krovinovic to continue in a midfield 3 and lead second wave of the relentless Albion press. If not then Fulham midfielders Harrison Reed, Bobby Decordova Reed and Tom Cairney will dominate like the midfield 3 of Brentford did. Also like Brentford, Fulham have a very dangerous front free which Albion will be hoping to stifle win the game. Mitrovic was kept relatively quiet by Bartley and Ajayi in the reverse fixture and whichever of Albion’s centre backs take the field will need to be on top of their game to do so again. Having served his one match ban against Derby and then watched the Blackburn game from the bench, Ahmed Hegazi will be hoping to return and add some solidity to the Baggies’ back line. Albion’s full backs will have to put in solid performances too, with Knockaert and Cavaleiro posing concerning threats, even if Fulham’s composed build up play doesn’t always get the most out of them. Bilic remarked that Kieran Gibbs may have been back for the Blackburn game when he limped off injured against Hull, so fitness permitting, this game may see the return of the former Arsenal man in place of Conor Townsend, who was one of a few players at fault for Blackburn’s equaliser on Saturday.
Kamil Grosicki will feel he has done enough to retain his place but could drop to the bench for Grady Diangana, who will be looking to make amends for an uncharacteristic lack of composure in front of goal against Rovers at the weekend. One man who simply has to start is Charlie Austin. This may raise a few eyebrows after a poor showing in front of goal last time out, but he is a man for the big occasion. Simply listening to him speak you get the impression that he firmly backs himself to be the man when his team are in need. He scored pressure-relieving opening goals against Hull and Sheffield Wednesday and another would be worth its weight in gold tomorrow. Additionally Hal Robson Kanu had a fantastic season pre Covid-19, however he has looked off the pace creatively since the restart. Charlie Austin, meanwhile, has looked more comfortable of late with the ball at his feet, as evidenced by his deft chiped cross to Krovinovic on Saturday. More of the same, please, Charlie.