Passionate, loveable, flawed. That’s how Slaven Bilić will be remembered by many at West Bromwich Albion. Each of these characteristics underpinned everything that Bilićs 18 month spell at the Hawthorns was built upon. He kicked down the door to automatic promotion with palpable drive, propelling his team to comeback win after comeback win in a fabulous unbeaten run to begin the 2019/20 Championship season. He then achieved something every Albion manager since Roy Hodgson has failed to do – truly reconnect the club and the fans. Yes there were moments of hope under Darren Moore, but Bilić’s managerial experience and tactical nous trumped Big Dave’s fan-favourite status. It was so easy to take to the Croatian not only due to his character, but also his style of play which reinstated a tradition of attacking football at the Hawthorns, propelled by individual brilliance and team spirit. But there were flaws. No Albion fan would kid themselves to the point of denying this. Huge questions were asked of Bilić and his squad last season and as the season wore on the answers were not forthcoming. Albion limped over the line and a short summer break was not enough to rid the club of the negative clouds which had gathered.
In retrospect, this lacklustre ending to the season was when the sun started to set on Slaven’s reign. A defiant Bilić tried time and time again to instil the same level of defiance in a squad which clearly bore battle scars from the previous season. In the opening stanza of this Premier League season, the dusk continued to draw in and it dawned on the club that a new direction was calling.
Losses to Palace and Newcastle were rock bottom for the Baggies, and clearly this most dark moment determined a new dawn for the board. But he was not sacked on Saturday evening and therein lies the problem with this dismissal. They say it’s darkest just before the dawn, but Slaven Bilić’s final act as Albion manager was a defiant glimmer of hope, a moment of brightness which shone through the darkness.
Bilić clearly remained blissfully ignorant as he commanded his technical area at the Etihad with the usual vigour, almost dancing with an equally animated Pep Guardiola. As they tip-toed off the pitch, their teams went toe-to-toe on it, with Albion giving more than a good account of themselves. In a way, this resolute performance was the epitome of Slaven Bilić the man, if not Slaven Bilić the manager. It was combative, defiant, and against the grain, and may that be the lasting memory of his time at Albion.
I wanted to keep this brief as football moves fast – incredibly fast at times like this – but here we are, a few hundred words deep. There is a list of mitigating circumstances as long as my arm, but I do want to say that I totally understand why you would sack a manager when you are 19th with 7 points from 13 games; for this there is a rationale. There is no rationale, however, for all but appointing a replacement while you allow a man who has given so much to the club in 18 short months to walk into certain defeat like a lamb to slaughter. The draw at the Etihad is a departing gift to the fans who adored Bilić, and a departing ‘fuck you’ to the board who frankly do not deserve the point it yielded. Thank you for everything, Slaven Bilić.
At 20 minutes past seven on Friday evening Emile Smith-Rowe’s snapshot appeared to slow time, and with each agonising roll closer to Sam Johnstone’s bottom corner, Albion saw automatic promotion drift further and further away. 10 minutes of anonymous panic followed, as 11 Albon rabbits found themselves in overawing Brentford headlights. For all of the comeback wins, all of the Pereira and Diangana magic, the Bilic and Bielsa hug, the scintillating highs of Swansea at home or Milwall away, Albion’s season was petering out. This was the lowest Albion ebb of the season.
You can never say anybody deserves more than they have in football – look at Leeds 16 year absence from football’s top table – but going out with a whimper was not a fitting end to a memorable Albion chapter. Then came the lifeline. An unlikely hero arose in the form of Michael O’Neill’s Stoke and after just 19 hours of doom and gloom, Albion were back in the driving seat. Brentford fumbled their first genuine chance to seize control in the automatic promotion race and Albion hope to leave them ruing it come 9:30pm on Wednesday.
Should anyone need a reminder of the state of play going into the final day, it is as follows. Albion, in second with 82 points, play mid table QPR at the Hawthorns. Third placed Brentford will kick off a point behind Albion as they host Barnsley, who require a win to keep their Championship status for another season. A further point back are Fulham, who travel to Wigan, whose impending points deduction could see them relegated if they fail to win. Albion have the luxury of simplicity insofar as they know a win will see them promoted regardless of other results.
1 – Albion’s final day opponents.
Much has been made on social media of the fact the Baggies host Brentford and Fulham’s West London rivals. Some QPR fans have even taken to donning an Albion avi in support of their opponents. While this might be a fun narrative, realistically there is absolutely no chance of a professional football team throwing a game to hinder another member of the league. Aside from legal ramifications and professional pride, Mark Warburton is ex-Brentford and will ensure he sets his team up in a competitive manner. While it is true that the R’s have nothing to play for in terms of promotion or relegation, they showed their quality last time out, putting 4 past a Milwall side who still very much had something to play for. QPR found themselves the right side of a high scoring thriller at the weekend but this is Rangers’ first visit to the Hawthorns since they were beaten 7-1 by a free-scoring Darren Moore side last season.
While Bright Osayi-Samuel is set to miss the game due to his imminent departure from the club, QPR will still boast an array of attacking talent that Albion’s occasionally frail back line will have to deal with. Ebere Eze has dazzled the league at times and the 22 year old was named QPR’s player of the season this week. In what could be his last QPR game, he will be looking to turn in a good performance, not only to potentially bid farewell, but also showcase his talent in a high-profile game which potential suitors will be watching. In addition, the likes of Ilias Chair and Ryan Manning have contributed to an exciting QPR attack this season. Any side playing with zero pressure can be dangerous, but particularly a side who like to express themselves with free-flowing football.
2 – How’s your nerve?
Let’s address the elephant in the room; Albion crumbled at Huddersfield. Even by the admission of the usually bullish Slaven Bilic, Albion wilted under the pressure of the situation. Of course they then watched Brentford do the same, which should give any nervous Baggies huge confidence. Brentford carried an air of invincibility during their 8 game winning run and this ensured relentless pressure on Bilic’s side. That air of invincibility is gone. That is not to say that Brentford will not win their game, it is highly possible; however the Stoke loss will go a long way to eradicating any fear Albion had of being inevitably pegged back. Picture Indiana Jones running from that rolling boulder. Imagine he falls but instead of crushing him, the boulder also stops. While the boulder is evidently still dangerous, it is considerably less scary.
Fulham are, of course, waiting to pounce should both sides fail to get over the line. Albion simply must deal with the pressure better than last time out. The Baggies were granted a highly unlikely second chance and if negative psychology was the reason for the capitulation at Huddersfield, then there are plenty of positive triggers this time. The game is at home, against a side Albion have regularly beaten since relegation, with their fate completely in their own hands, just 90 minutes from Albion greatness. Slaven Bilic must find a way to harness the positive stressors and encourage his team to run towards the danger rather than cower from it. Should the Baggies fall short then it would be very, very difficult to see them dusting themselves down and handling the pressure of a playoff campaign, too. Albion can also take confidence from the fact they turned in one of their best performances of the season at Loftus Road. Repeat that performance and West Brom are in the Premier League.
3 – The most important team selection of the season.
As every single Albion fan will know, this game will be Chris Brunt’s last appearance in an Albion matchday squad. The man is a hero to many and will go down as a Baggies legend. It was his boot which sealed promotion in 2008 and it could possibly happen again. However any appearance would be from the bench and presumably to make the most of his deadly set-piece delivery. Some fans understandably want Brunt to start the game but this is far too important a game for sentiment to cloud the manager’s judgement, and it won’t. You can fully expect the starting XI to be full of regulars, but there are still some decisions to be made.
The question of formation has been somewhat of a hot topic in recent weeks and Bilic has opted more often than not for the 4231 which saw so much success in the early part of the season. Albion could not wrestle control of the game or dictate the pace in their last game, which even saw Bilic substitute Jake Livermore after just 45 minutes – which, by the way, was perhaps a display of desperation. Without a shadow of a doubt, Romaine Sawyers had a poor game against Huddersfield, and some are calling for Bilic to drop him. Now why you would want to drop one of the most consistent performers from the spine of your team in the most important game of the season is beyond me. What Sawyers needs is help, not punishment. A midfield 3 of Livermore, Sawyers and Krovinovic would afford Sawyers more time on the ball and would also offer Albion a chance to diversify their creative channels.
I believe the front 3 picks itself in this game. Pereira is the first name of the team sheet and Diangana has been simply magical at times this season. Bilic opted for Hal Robson-Kanu against Huddersfield, however there is, for me, unquestionably one man for the occasion. Charlie Austin. The former QPR marksman has not had the highest scoring season of his career and can drift out of games at times, however one thing which he has done is score big goals at big times. Goals against Birmingham, Sheffield Wednesday (home and away), Hull and Preston have earned the Baggies plenty of points this season and if any Albion striker has an ounce of match-winning quality, it’s him. Needless to say, Austin would probably be looking to score against his former employers in any game, but this time that desire will be tenfold with what’s at stake.
The back four and goalkeeper should remain unchanged for me, despite Dara O’Shea and Sam Johstone probably losing sleep over their roles in Huddersfield’s opening goal on Friday. The partnership of Ajayi and Hegazi has looked assured this season and Dara O’Shea’s positive performances far outweigh his naive one last time out. Conor Townsend is of course the first choice left back in the absence of Kieran Gibbs and who knows, he could even be the player to make way for club captain Chris Brunt if a goal is required as the game wears on.
Whichever XI takes the field, this Albion side are 90 minutes away from a place in Baggies history. I couldn’t possibly predict anything but a win as my heart won’t let me; I’l go for a famous 3-1 Albion victory. Either way, try to enjoy it Albion fans, these occasions don’t come around too often. Boing boing.
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.
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.
2- 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.
What a difference a goal makes. With each of the 37 minutes that passed before Charlie Austin’s penalty at Hillsborough, the tension rose and seeds of doubt continued to sprout visibly throughout a tense Albion XI. A naive pull back from an out of position Moses Odubajo gave Austin the chance to show just how stone cold he is. Then, as if the shackles were lifted, the second half saw wave upon wave of free-flowing attacks from the Baggies, reminiscent of their pre-lockdown best.
Slaven Bilic will be hoping this second half performance is a sign of things to come and that the Baggies have well and truly turned a corner in their Championship run-in. Sunday sees Albion welcome Hull City to an almost empty Hawthorns. The Tigers are another team who have just recorded their first post-resumption win after a run of poor form. Although poor form perhaps doesn’t quite express just how bad Hull’s form had been before the 2-1 win over Neil Warnock’s Boro. The Tigers’ victory on Thursday evening ended a run which saw them collect just 3 points in a 13 game winless period dating back to January. With results once again going against the Baggies on Saturday afternoon, they have just a two point automatic promotion cushion ahead of Sunday’s game and any pressure they stood up to against Sheffield Wednesday is firmly back on.
1 – Defensivesolidity
Despite just losing one game before Christmas, one valid criticism levelled at this Albion side is that they conceded too many goals. They were winning games but had to score 2 or 3 to do so every time. It took 9 games for Albion to record their first clean sheet and they have been hard to come by at times this season. An upturn in defensive form has seen Albion keep 7 clean sheets in their last 11 games, with the 433 formation affording the back four some much needed cover at times. Albion’s current total of just 38 goals conceded can only be bettered by Leeds and Brentford, which is testament to the progress that Bilic has made defensively.
It was the Baggies’ defensive solidity which impressed on Wednesday evening, with the hosts getting the better of the midfield battle at times, but struggling to carve an opening through a solid Albion back line. It was, by some margin, Ahmed Hegazi’s best performance of the season and perhaps his finest in an Albion shirt. In addition, Dara O’Shea and Kieran Gibbs turned in very accomplished displays to help keep Sam Johnstone’s workload to a minimum. Semi Ajayi was afforded a rare rest and the defensive display in his absence could warrant more time on the sidelines for the Nigerian, but Hull will likely offer considerably less than Wednesday on the attack and therefore I expect him to slot back in for his ball playing ability, if nothing else.
2 – Hope for Hull?
Hull were one of the most vocal clubs in favour of curtailing the season and ending on points per game during lockdown as this would have seen them stay up on a technicality. You need only consult their recent form – or watch a Hull match – to see why. The Tigers were in freefall before lockdown and the break certainly came at the right time for them. Hull did not take well to the restart, either. They lost a crucial 6 pointer to Charlton, before twice throwing the lead away in a 3-3 draw with Birmingham, who looked like they couldn’t score 3 goals in 900 minutes, let alone 90 when they turned up to the Hawthorns one week prior. They did, however, record their first win since January against Boro in what Hull manager Grant McCann will hope is the start of a run to propel them away from a very congested relegation battle.
It is difficult to see how the Tigers could capitalise on this spark against Albion, though. Hull have conceded 69 goals and have not kept a clean sheet since New Year’s Day, a run of 14 games. Only bottom club Luton have conceded more goals and since the January departures of match winners Jared Bowen and Kamil Grosicki, the goals have somewhat dried up for the Tigers. Other than two anomalous and hectic high scoring draws (4-4 vs Swansea and 3-3 with Blues), Hull had failed to score more than once in any game in 2020, until the midweek win over Middlesbrough. At this stage of the season, it is often said that performances don’t matter, but Hull were not good value for their first post-lockdown win and will have to raise their performance level against an Albion side coming off the back of an excellent second half display at Hillsborough. In truth, there will be little pressure on Hull who may see this as a free hit sitting just outside of the relegation zone and having collected 4 points from their last 2 games.
3 – Hull to frustrate the Baggies?
Many of the relegation threatened teams who have played the Baggies this season have employed a low block with numbers behind the ball. Because it works. The likes of Barnsley, Charlton, Boro, Stoke and Wigan have all taken points at the Hawthorns through disciplined play out of possession. Setting up your stall, so to speak, and challenging Albion to break you down has been the blueprint for many sides at the Hawthorns and Hull will recognise this. Whether the Tigers will be as defensive as some sides have been remains to be seen as it does go against their natural approach somewhat, but a low block has been successful against Albion too many times for Grant McCann to ignore. Additionally, no team has scored more goals through counter attacks (6) than Hull in this season’s Championship, therefore inviting Albion pressure on could see success for the Tigers.
One of the primary reasons that Albion have struggled against a low block is that much of their creative output is based on intricate passing or needle-threading through balls, which are made considerably more difficult by defences who restrict space in and around the penalty area. If Hull do frustrate Albion in the first half, Slaven Bilic will be able to call upon attacking reinforcements such as Callum Robinson or former Tiger Kamil Grosicki, who both looked very sharp in the 3-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday. A moment of magic can be the difference in an attack vs defence match and the Baggies manager has the luxury of more than his fair share of players capable of producing those magic moments. I’ll predict a 2-1 Albion win, with Kamil Grosicki netting the deciding goal from the bench against his former employers.
You didn’t think it would be easy, did you? The Championship is often called the best league in the world by many who cover it. While there is stylish football and talent aplenty in England’s second division, it is its drama which goes some way to justifying the hyperbolic tagline. It wouldn’t be a Championship run in without a few twists and turns. If defeat at Griffin Park was a twist in the wrong direction then Albion fans hope a trip to Hillsborough on Wednesday evening will be a turning point in the final chapter of the Championship season.
Still in the automatic promotion places (just) and with mainly bottom half clubs still to play, it is not quite panic stations yet for Albion. That being said, the Baggies will travel to an empty Hillsborough – a ground where they have not lost since 2006- in search of a much needed 3 points. One point from their opening two games compared to Brentford’s 9 points from 9 available has left Albion just two points ahead of the West London outfit. Albion simply must convert their game in hand to send a message to the chasing pack – they will not wilt under the pressure. Or so they hope.
1 – A bit of perspective…
Before the main body of this preview, I would like to try to offer an important bit of perspective, or reassurance, depending on how you view it. The Baggies have overachieved this season. The appointment of Slaven Bilic was not universally received with optimism, particualrly from those outside the club. Many Championship writers and pundits take on the unenviable task of predicting the table before a ball is kicked, and while this is admittedly incredibly difficult, very, very few predicted Albion to finish in the top 2. More than a few very knowledgeable EFL writers predicted that they would be chasing the playoffs at this point in the season as a best case scenario. Disarray is too strong a word, but there was very little cause for optimism at the Hawthorns following the play off loss to Aston Villa. The losses of Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle were much publicised and Albion’s dwindling and ageing squad was reinforced by a few bargain purchases (which now look very shrewd). Slaven Bilic had been out of the English game for a few seasons and had not been a success in the Middle East, which meant that his appointment was a risk. The club took this risk safe in the knowledge that it was a two year project which would ideally culminate in promotion, to coincide with the end of the clubs parachute payments. Judging by this, and frankly by any other measure, Slaven Bilic and this West Bromwich Albion side have been excellent – in the truest sense of the word.
When the season resumed Albion had a 6 point lead, they now have a 2 point lead, should they win on Wednesday night then it would be 5 points. A 5 point lead with 6 games to go would be an enviable position, would being the operative word, there. It may seem like the Baggies have been comfortably in the top 2 all season, but they have been seriously tested before. After matchday 29 Nottingham Forest had clawed back the lead to just 2 points. Just weeks later, after a resdiscovery of form, Albion found themselves 9 points clear of the the playoffs once more. Albion have been there to be shot at all season and they have handled it very well until this minor slump. Even if Albion were to be caught and leapfrogged this time, there is no telling if another side will fare as the team in the sights of the chasing pack. Yes, it has not been an ideal return to football for Albion, but it’s all part of the fun. Have faith in this excellent side and enjoy the ride, Baggies fans.
2 – When the going gets tough…
This Albion side have drawn more than their fair share of plaudits over the course of the season, from losing just one their opening 23 games, to sharing the goals around the squad with remarkable consistency. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Baggies’ season has been the ability to deliver in difficult moments, as evidenced by a league-high 24 points gained from losing positions. Comeback wins at Nottingham Forest and Luton Town set the tone for the season and Albion also dug deep against Blackburn, Huddersfield and Birmingham to take all 3 points from behind. In isolated situations Bilic has known how to help his side claw back into a game, but the loss against Brentford signifies the biggest question posed to his side this season. A disappointing run of results calls for a different kind of character display than going behind in a 90 minute game. Notions of self-doubt, the fear of failure and pressure are all amplified by the five day wait between games for the Baggies.
This week on social media has seen numerous Albion players take to social media in defiant mood. Matheus Pereira, Grady Diangana and Callum Robinson have all expressed their determination and belief in the squad ahead of the run in, which at the very least shows they will face the pressure head on. Slaven Bilic also held a team meeting at the training ground this week and reiterated what he expects from the players, before he issued a public call to arms through the club on Tuesday, encouraging his squad to handle the pressure at this pivotal side of the season. This is an exciting Albion squad who have flirted with greatness and success at times this season; they can achieve both if they stand up to be counted over the next seven games, starting with a tricky fixture against Sheffield Wednesday.
3 – Wednesday rediscovering their form?
Prior to the Covid-19 interruption, tricky is not the word I would have used to describe this fixture as there were few sides performing as consistently poorly as Sheffield Wednesday, with just 2 wins in 2020. However they do appear to have found some form behind closed doors, collecting 4 points from their opening 2 games against Nottingham Forest and Bristol City respectively. The atmosphere at Hillsborough hasn’t always been the most positive this season, with large sections of the fan base unconvinced by Garry Monk’s tenure thus far, despite a promising start initially. The break seemed to come at the right time for a Wednesday side who could yet face a points deduction which would take them precariously close to the relegation battle.
The resumption of the Owls’ season looked to be a continuation their misery after the first 92 minutes, until former Crystal Palace striker Connor Wickham buried a last-gasp equaliser in their opening game against Forest. The same player notched again just 13 minutes into their next fixture, after some excellent screening work from a corner allowed Wickham to nod home unopposed from 10 yards out. Incidentally, it may surprise Albion fans to hear the corner from which he scored the opening goal in that game was from the boot of former Albion loanee Jacob Murphy. Murphy has been much improved for Sheffield Wednesday this season when compared to his time at the Hawthorns last year. In the opening half of the season, Murphy and Kadeem Harris impressed pundits and fans alike with their direct and productive wing play for the Owls and although their creative output did dry up in unison with Wednesday’s dip in form, they remain a genuine threat to Albion’s full backs.
4 – All change?
Football fans are reactionary, never more so than when their team has lost and they are unhappy with the XI from the game. Social media was awash with people baying for the blood of underperformers from the Brentford game, with Saywers and Phillips bearing the brunt of the criticism for below par showings. In the case of Phillips, I do believe this may be one poor performance too many and he could drop to the bench to give way for another of Albion’s talented attack. I do, however, have sympathy with Sawyers, who was asked to be the primary ball mover in a midfield two which was destined to lose the battle for supremacy in the middle of the pitch. Despite a warm up injury forcing a change of personnel, Brentford’s midfield 3 enforced a very intense press on the Albion duo of Sawyers and Livermore and did not allow the Baggies to dictate the pace of the game- particularly in the first half.
Rather than ringing changes, Bilic may see success should he afford Filip Krovinovic a starting berth in a midfield 3. I will not linger too much on this point, for fear of repeating previous match previews, but the Croatian has shown his effectiveness as an 8 on numerous occasions this season and the 433 system has appeared to be the most effective for the Baggies in recent months. On the subject of changes, Kenneth Zohore’s second half cameo was a minor positive for Albion on Friday night and the Dane may feel he has earned himself a first start since the resumption of play. That being said, should Bilic opt for a 433, I imagine Hal Robson-Kanu would get the nod as the glue that holds the creative attack together in this system- a role which may not be best suited to Zohore.
After not being included in the matchday squad for the first two post-lockdown fixtures, Kamil Grosicki could come back into the squad with a point to prove. The same could possibly be said for departing club legend Chris Brunt, who will be hoping to feature against his former employers at Hillsborough. While a start is simply out of the question, Brunt’s set piece mastery could be pivotal in the final 15 minutes of any Championship fixture over the next month.
Numerically, the first round of post-resumption fixtures was a success for Albion. They began the day second in the table, behind a Leeds side who restarted with an uncharacteristically, yet somehow predictability poor performance in a 2-0 loss to Cardiff. Albion finished the weekend top of the tree. They also held a 6 point advantage over 3rd placed Fulham, who restarted their campaign with a 2-0 loss of their own. Albion moved 7 points clear of them. The Baggies also dominated possession and attempts statistics in their own game, but truth be told, it was somewhat of a false start for Bilic’s side as they welcomed a Birmingham City side who were content to take what was a very good point on the road. Albion will be looking to shake off any residual cobwebs on Friday night in what promises to be the antithesis of the opener against Blues. There are few places in English football which are more difficult to go to than Brentford’s Griffin Park. From a unique fan experience, to a recent lineage of technical excellence on the pitch, a trip to Brentford jumps off the fixture list as notoriously difficult in the Championship.
This away day in West London will be like no other before, though, as Griffin Park hosts its first competitive fixture post-lockdown. Bilic, who has been open in expressing the view that home advantage is currently non-existent, will be hoping his side can benefit from the behind closed doors setting, and truly get their season up and running once more. At times this season, Albion have struggled to break down the league’s more resolute defences if they set up in a low-block, but Brentford will not be intimidated into altering their own attacking brand of football.
1. “Would you take a point?”
Not all points are created equal in a Championship season. A point against Brentford would be considerably better received than the point against Birmingham, for example. This is not only because it is a more difficult game on paper, but obviously because it would also take two points off the side who look most likely to catch the current top 2. Furthermore, unless you have been living under a rock, I shouldn’t have to remind you that second placed Leeds will host third placed Fulham, which guarantees more dropped points in the top four. There is no getting away from the fact that a point would suit Albion far more than it would Brentford, who would then have to claw back an 8 point deficit in the final 7 games.
However, all the noises from the Albion camp suggest that this is a game they will be trying to win in order to take a massive stride towards promotion, rather than trying to contain their talented hosts. A win would put Albion 10 points clear of Fulham and 3 points clear of Leeds before they play at 3pm on Saturday afternoon. Such a cushion over 3rd place would, in all likelihood, be insurmountable for a Fulham team who are running out of time to put a barnstorming run together to sneak back into contention. Brentford’s ever-positive approach and Albion’s fight fire with fire mentality should make for one of the most exciting and open games since the Championship resumed.
2. If the league was played on paper…
Brentford’s Moneyball approach was one of the most fascinating and important features of the Championship in the 2010s and in this season in which we have entered a new decade, Brentford fans and board members will hope to see the culmination of the hugely successful approach through promotion to the Premier League. The exemplary transfer acumen, money-making and ambition have begun to pay off in a big way for the West London side. Astonishingly, Brentford have scored more goals (66) than every side in the division and conceded less goals (33) than all but Leeds this season. That is unequivocally title-winning form. However Brentford find themselves 8 points off the summit of the league. The fact they have scored more than any other side can be explained by the fact that when the Bees are firing on all cylinders, they are quite simply irresistible. With a front 3 that could well all be playing Premier League football next season, with or without Brentford, the goals tend to come in bunches for Thomas Frank’s side. Scintillating displays including a 7-0 win against Luton, a 4-0 statement at Ashton gate and a 5-0 drubbing of Sheffield Wednesday stand out and perhaps show why the stats make such good reading for Brentford.
The fact of the matter is, though, that Brentford simply have too many off days. The form the Bees have shown at times has been frightening, but they have won 3 games in a row just once this season, and they quite often flatter to deceive at pivotal points in a Championship season. They have lost 11 games this season, which is more than double Albion’s total of 5. However there does appear to be a slightly different feel to this Thomas Frank side than there has been to past Brentford iterations and it speaks volumes of the progress at Griffin Park that a playoff campaign is the minimum expectation with 8 games to go in the regular season. The Baggies were very sluggish in their first outing after the lockdown and if they are not back up to something like a competitive degree of match sharpness, then the Bees, who looked reasonably sharp in a 2-0 win at Craven Cottage, have the potential to embarrass Albion in a way they haven’t been since the 4-0 loss at Elland Road last season.
3 – Sawyers key in a midfield 3
One man who did not look sluggish against Birmingham was former Brentford captain Romaine Saywers. The former Albion academy product has dictated games with effortless regularity since he returned to the Hawthorns a man, having left a boy. It was during his time at Griffin Park that the St Kitts and Nevis international dropped deeper into midfield and developed his metronomic style that draws comparisons to elite level dictators of play like Luka Modric.
Sawyers would have been afforded a warm welcome off the pitch on his first visit to Griffin Park since leaving last summer, had this game not been set to take place behind closed doors. However on the pitch, Friday night’s game will be one of the season’s strictest appraisals of Albion’s Sawyers-led midfield. Slaven Bilic opted for a 4231 formation in the Baggies’ opener in a bid to blow Blues’ defence away with excellent attacking support. I firmly believe, however, that this game will be won and lost in the midfield, where Albion should look to consolidate by incorporating Filip Krovinovic into a midfield 3 and playing Pereira on the right-wing. The switch to 433 earlier in the season triggered an upturn in defensive form and Albion have kept 6 clean sheets in their last 9 games. This kind of defensive solidity will be key in winning a midfield battle against tidy midfield 3 of Christian Nørgaard, Josh Dasilva and Mathias Jensen.
4. Selection headache
The Baggies never truly got going in the 0-0 with Birmingham, and looked devoid of creativity at times, which has not been a criticism levelled regularly at Albion this season. Birmingham’s compact approach made it very difficult for the likes of Robinson, Pereira and Phillips to create, and all of the supporting cast who appeared from the bench suffered the same fate. We may see Diangana start instead of Robinson, and Krovinovic in for Phillips but whichever of Albion’s attackers start the game on Friday night, they are certain to have considerably more space than against Blues. Kamil Grosicki will be looking for a first appearance since the resumption as he did not make the enlarged matchday squad last time out. Dara O’Shea may come back in at full back for Darnell Furlong to provide defensive solidity against Brentford’s devastating counter attacks. It is difficult to know how this game will go, it could be a tale of two sides struggling for match sharpness, or it could be a slobber-knocker. I will hope for the latter and predict a 2-2 draw. Whether Albion clinch promotion from here or not, the Baggies’ final ever visit to Grifin Park, lamentably behind closed doors, will no doubt be looked back on as crucial either way.
The Championship is often described as a marathon in that it is a 46 game war of attrition for those with promotion ambitions. Ordinarily this would be accurate – but these are not ordinary times. The 46 game slog has been unavoidably dissected to leave just a quarter of the season to play following an unprecedented 3 month gap. The 2019/20 Championship marathon is no more, all that remains is a relentless sprint-finish which will see the Baggies play 9 games in just over a month. It is therefore vital that Bilić’s side hit the ground running against a Birmingham City side, who have very little to lose, both in the context of the match as underdogs, and generally in the context of the season.
One benefit of the Covid-19 suspension of play is that each club will benefit from an unusually injury-free side heading into the most pivotal point in the season. Kieran Gibbs is said to be back to full fitness, after he struggled to shake off recurring injuries before the intermission, which should see the former Arsenal man slot back into the side as the attacking yin to Dara O’Shea’s defensive yang. Crucially, however, the dazzling Grady Diangana is fully fit and ready to be called upon to torture Championship defences once more, as he looks to recapture the form which has endeared him to the Albion faithful during his loan. The return of the West-Ham loanee does, however, pose quite a selection headache to Slaven Bilić, who has what can only be described as an embarrassment of attacking riches at his disposal. While Diangana was injured, January signing Callum Robinson slotted back into a Championship line-up as if he had never left, and Filip Krovinovic found success as a number 8 in a 4-3-3 – as opposed to the 4-3-2-1 in which Diangana excelled in the early part of the season. The change in formation led to a rediscovery in form for the side, so it is difficult to envisage the return of the 4-2-3-1 simply to accommodate a frighteningly talented combination of Matheus Pereira, Grady Diangana and Callum Robinson. It is far more likely that Krovinovic will start on Saturday afternoon to help win a crucial midfield battle against a dogged Blues midfield featuring the likes of Ivan Sunjic and Gary Gardner, which will mean one of Robinson or Diangana will not be afforded a starting berth.
West Bromwich Albion will also boast a staggering array of attacking talent among the substitutes, with the likes of Kamil Grosicki, Matt Phillips, Kyle Edwards and Charlie Austin likely to take up a space on the socially-distanced bench. If you have paid close attention to Albion this season – as I imagine most readers of this blog will have – then you will know why the luxury of being able to use five substitutes in a game may appeal to the Baggies manager. Slaven Bilić has demonstrated his ability to change football matches with substitutions throughout this season, perhaps no more evidently than in the reverse fixture at St Andrew’s in December when Charlie Austin helped himself to a brace from the bench. I doubt whether there is a manager in the league who will benefit more from the rule change, or make more of the attacking options on their substitute bench during this Championship season reprise. There is, of course, the added benefit of a lot of games in a short period of time, so any players who do not start, or even appear off the bench on Saturday, will know that their chances of playing time in the immediate future are more than likely.
Usually when previewing a game, the most logical course of action is to visit the form table and try to break down any patterns that have developed in recent weeks and months. However there is no recent form from which to draw any kind meaningful conclusion, given that neither side have played a competitive game of football in over 3 months. In addition, there are times in football where the form table goes out of the window, so to speak, including for derby matches and for season run-ins. I therefore subscribe to the view that the fact Birmingham lost their last game after a 13 game unbeaten run or the fact that Albion are top of the 8 game form table have no bearing on the outcome of this game. With this in mind, I enlisted the help of , football league expert and Bluenose Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab on Twitter) for a word on Albion’s first post-lockdown opponents.
As many Blues fans will, Gabriel warmly welcomes the return of the Championship, eager to see the conclusion to a Birmingham season which has seen them consolidate their status as a mid-table side, rather than the “perennial relegation fodder” they were from 2014-2018 as Gabriel so bluntly put it. This change in expectations is thanks to the work of Gary Monk and the outgoing Pep Clotet. Clotet’s stay in the Second City will be remembered as short but sweet by many Bluenoses, as the former Birmingham assistant leaves an exciting side behind, with the likes of Bela, Crowley and Sunjic all impressing this season. There is, of course, one man, or perhaps I should say boy, that has drawn more admiration than anyone else at St Andrew’s this season (Coventry players included). That is, of course, 16-year-old Jude Bellingham, who was very impressive in the reverse fixture. Bellingham has attracted attention from some of the biggest clubs in the world and I therefore had to ask the opinion of someone who sees him play every week to try to understand what all the fuss is about.
Gabriel understandably held little back in his praise for the Stourbridge born talent, highlighting an attitude and tenacity beyond his years, but above all, a remarkable versatility on the pitch. This versatility, Gab points out, is demonstrated by the fact that in the games in which Bellingham became Blues’ youngest player, became their youngest scorer and turned what Gab describes as his finest Blues performance, he played three very different positions. On his Birmingham debut against Portsmouth in the League Cup, the record-breaking youngster was deployed as a false 9 – a position which Gab could see Bellingham growing into due to his intelligence and link-up play. Bellingham went on to become Birmingham City’s youngest ever goalscorer against Charlton in September, this time playing off the left. It is, remarkably, in a deeper midfield role that Blues fan Gabriel declares Bellingham “produced the game of his life” in a win against Middlesbrough in October, which shows a flexibility akin to a playground footballer, which Bellingham would actually have been just last year. This versatility is naturally unpredictable, but whoever matches up against the starlet on Saturday will have their hands full as the 16-year-old may look to take advantage of some rusty older legs.
As previously alluded to, Albion’s visit to St Andrew’s earlier in the season was decided by some Charlie Austin heroics, but Birmingham were arguably the better side that day. They won the midfield battle for 60 minutes and Lukas Jutkiewicz caused havoc for the Albion back line, before Bilić outfoxed the Birmingham bench with a switch to a back 3. The Duke will be sure to pose a threat once more with his hold up play and aerial prowess, particularly in tandem with the January addition of strike partner Scott Hogan from Aston Villa (!), who has been among the goals since his Second City move. Gabriel is sceptical of the possibility of a 4-4-2 against Albion, as ” it will be hard to deny space for the likes of Sawyers and Pereira”. It is difficult to disagree with this. A midfield 3 of Livermore, Saywers and Krovinovic has the potential to pass rings around most 2-man midfields, so we may see Blues try to consolidate in the centre with an extra body, perhaps the versatile Bellingham. If the likes of Pereira, Sawyers, Diangana and Robinson are afforded too much space, they will punish a defence at this level, as they have shown countless times this season.
Bluenose Gab reluctantly predicts a 2-1 win for the home side in Saturday’s meeting, which will be broadcast live on Sky, as it was scheduled to originally. There is, of course, the small matter of a West London derby which precedes the West Midlands clash. Should Fulham overcome Brentford in the early kick-off, there will, all of a sudden, be massive pressure on the the Baggies squad a they would head into their 3pm game just 3 points ahead of Fulham. Regardless of any effect the early result may have on proceedings, I will echo the thoughts of the knowledgeable Gab Sutton and predict a narrow 2-1 Albion win, with Grady Diangana scoring to make it 2 from 2 against Blues this season.
Although we can’t be there to sing them home, the best Albion side in a decade is now about to embark on the most important 9-game run in many of these players’ careers. What a pleasure it is to see this side once again, especially as it was feared we would not. Cherish it. Enjoy it. Stay safe, Baggies fans.
Where did the season go? 36 games down and just like that the run in is upon us. It was a sobering week for Albion, who first welcomed a resurgent Wigan side who are doing a Wigan by coming to life when relegation looms. A thoroughly frustrating loss to Steve Bruce’s hapless Newcastle side followed, as Slaven Bilić sent as clear a message as he could: The cup does not matter one iota with a promotion race on our hands. The cup exit was an almost symbolic clearance of the priority list, leaving the Championship front runners with a solitary plate to spin. As the season enters its twilight period, maybe the Croatian will welcome the fixture respite as he gears his side up for a sprint-finish.
If West Bromwich Albion have to be on guard against complacency setting in and dragging them back into the playoff picture, then Swansea City have to be on the offensive to claw any semblance of competition back into their season. The Swans currently sit four points and three places behind 6th placed Bristol City and cannot afford any more slip ups if they are to stay on the coattails of the top 6. The South Wales outfit have won just one of their last eight games and if they are to sneak back into the top 6 they have to arrest their slide immediately.
Not many neutrals harboured high hopes for the Jacks at the start of the season, with Graham Potter headhunted by Brighton, marksmen Oli McBurnie Yorkshire-bound and almost all of the Premier League talent of old offloaded in an endeavour to cut the wage bill. However Steve Cooper, coach of the England U-17 World Cup winning side in 2017 that included the likes of Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Phil Foden, has exceeded expectations. Cooper oversaw a blistering start to the season which even saw the team from the Welsh second City enter the top-2 conversation for a period of time. Cynics swore by the underlying data and argued that a dip in form would eventually arrive. It did. After winning 6 of their opening 7 league fixtures, Swansea have gone on to win just 7 of their next 29, including an astonishing run which has seen them fail to record a win against a current top half team since a 1-0 win at Elland Road in August. When you consider this record against the top teams, it’s difficult to make a playoff case for Swansea even if they do sneak into the top 6.
Swansea City may have the smallest squad in the league, however it is predictably youthful and it has plenty of quality. The January transfer window saw Steve Cooper call upon his reputation in the youth game in securing the loan signings of U-17 World Cup winners Rhian Brewster and Conor Gallagher from Liverpool and Chelsea respectively. Generally this season the more impressive performers for Swansea have been the younger players, with Joe Rodon (22), Matt Grimes (24) and goalkeeper Freddie Woodman (23) all catching the eye. One name which will be familiar to many Baggies fans is that of Yan Dhanda, one of many talented Albion academy products who left for top 6 clubs in the 2010s. The Dudley native Dhanda got off to a flying start at Swansea, scoring with his first touch as a professional, however his opportunities have been limited since signing in 2018.
A supposed drop off in performance levels had led to criticism being aimed in the direction of Romaine Sawyers prior to his suspension against Bristol City, but a lack of structure and rhythm to Albion’s play in the 3 games he has missed is testament to his importance. The Albion faithful will be hoping that the St Kitts and Nevis international makes an emphatic return to the starting line up, recapturing the form which saw him draw plaudits from fans and pundits alike in the opening half of the season. Sawyers has also been a data darling this season, topping numerous passing metrics at various points in the season, including most passes in the opposition half and best long pass completion rate. He will come up against another of the league’s most proficient passers in Matt Grimes, who is as important for Swansea as Sawyers is for the Baggies.
If there is one team you do not want to welcome when your form is as poor as Swansea City’s it is probably Slaven Bilić’s Baggies, who have collected more point on the road than any other side in the EFL this season. A 2-1 loss to Cardiff is the only time Albion have lost away from home since 1st October. Another away win at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday would be invaluable for the Baggies, who are potentially just 8 games from a return to the promised land. The maximum amount of points that Fulham in 3rd place could accrue is 93, which is just 24 points and 8 wins more than Albion’s current total of 69. Add to the mix that Fulham still have to play Bristol City, Brentford, Nottingham Forest, Leeds and of course West Bromwich Albion so in all likelihood the required total will be slightly lower. Should Albion win when Scott Parker’s side turn up to the Hawthorns on 18th April, then of course West Brom would only need a maximum of 6 wins in their other 9 games. It is impossible to predict all the twists and turns of the Championship, but it is now at the point in the season where there are tangible targets and totals to aim for, therefore Albion cannot afford to see the 6 point gap close once again.
This game promises to be an intriguing battle between two sides whose natural approach to games is to keep the ball and dominate play. This is a dangerous game to try and play against Bilić’s side, who can be ruthless on the counter attack, as Swansea found out in a 5-1 demolition in the reverse fixture, which many consider Albion’s best performance of the season. In that game, Matheus Pereira put in his most scintillating Baggies display to date, helping himself to 3 assists, a goal and unadulterated adoration from the Hawthorns crowd. The Brazilian may see his freedom somewhat restricted against a side who do not want to be on the receiving end of another masterclass- but this will excite the supporting cast, who will look to exploit any gaps in the Swansea back line. I expect Albion’s good away form to continue and Swansea dismal run to be extended to one win in nine games. I’ll predict a 3-1 Albion win, with Callum Robinson to get on the scoresheet.
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.