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.