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.