Albion’s first midweek league fixture of the long Championship season sees The Baggies host a new-look Reading side aiming for promotion, but tipped for relegation. The Royals travel to The Hawthorns in search of a first league win there since 1988, a record older than any of the 11 players who have started each of Albion’s first three games. However records are made to be broken, see Luton Town’s home form.
You may ask yourself, how is it that a team can be in the conversation for both promotion and relegation? That, however, is absolutely the case for Reading. The former Premier League club have recorded just one anomalous top 6 finish since their relegation from the top flight in 2012/13, occupying 20th position for the last two seasons. This season, there is an air of optimism around the Madjeski following a busy end to the summer transfer window, with the apparent model being: Sign people with class names and the lad who scored against us on Saturday. That’s exactly what Reading managed to do between their first and second fixtures of the season.
Following a 3-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in which Lucas Joao found the Royals’ net, they signed the Portuguese international for an undisclosed fee. Eyebrows were raised, though, when Pele and Puscas (not those ones) were signed from Monaco and Inter Milan respectively. The jury is very much still out on a Reading side who started the campaign with two losses, before putting Neil Warnock and Cardiff to the sword on Sunday afternoon, but there was more than enough to send Reading fans on Twitter berking mad during the 3-0 win. Ovie Ejaria and John Swift were impressive, with the latter creating a Championship season high 7 chances for his teammates, before getting on the scoresheet himself. The real danger man in this Reading team, however, is undoubtedly George Puscas, who scored a goal worthy of nomination for the award which honours his namesake. The Romanian would have capped a near-perfect performance with a hattrick too, had he not inexplicably scuppered a one-on-one just seconds before leaving the pitch to a royal standing ovation.
While Reading recorded their first win of the season, Albion, registered another 2-1 win away from home to start the season with 7 points from 9. Albion got one over on Graeme Jones in a quintessential game of two halves. A football cliché, I know. However in terms of scoreline, tactical approach, personnel, and attacking intent it was exactly that. Albion turned the game on its head in 6 second half minutes with a higher press and intensity that the first half was lacking following the introduction of debutant Grady Diangana. The on-loan West Ham youngster helped himself to a brace and entertained just over 1000 Albion fans at Kenilworth Road throughout the second half.
Both Albion goals came about through the combination of Sawyers-Krovinovic-Diangana, in that order. This will have delighted the travelling support, given that for the first 225 minutes of the season nobody has been on the same wavelength as the prodigal baggie or the Croatian Koumas. Replays of the Luton goal neither acquit nor condemn Semi Ajayi, who was left in a heap in the build up as Harry Cornick headed past a stranded Sam Johnstone from 12 yards. Whether Ajayi was tripped or fell over his own feet, it was a cheap goal to concede, the like of which Albion have to cut out if they wish to continue their good start to the season.
So, what can we expect on Wednesday night? Up to this point, Slaven Bilic has named an unchanged XI in all 3 league fixtures, with Kyle Edwards and Semi Ajayi also starting the Carabao cup exit against Milwall. This may signify changes for Albion as the workload starts to pile up, with match winner Grady Diangana almost certain to take the place of Kyle Edwards, who struggled to make an impact during his 45 minutes at Luton. Once again, expect to see both Zohore and Austin involved, with the Dane possibly getting the nod once again after an encouraging display on his third league start.
The game promises to be an interesting match up. Albion will look to continue their sustained-possession approach which has allowed them to record a league-best 701 passes in the opposition half this season; but with Reading looking electric on the counter attack against Cardiff, transition is key for West Brom. Joao and Puscas let chances go begging on the counter as the game became stretched on Sunday before John Swift put the final nail in the Cardiff coffin. It will be a challenging night for both full backs and Albion’s midfield, who will have to recover very quickly when the ball is given away. Consequently, it would not be surprising if Rekeem Harper plays some part at The Hawthorns to provide fresh legs. Although the academy product who was linked with a number of European giants in the summer is sometimes guilty of losing his man, so he will have to be alert to Ejaria, Joao, Puscas and Swift looking to exploit space during transition. Given his injury record in recent seasons, it would not be a surprise to see Matt Phillips start on the bench, with Matheus Pereira coming in for a first league start.
I think the first goal is massive, as this is a game that Albion will not want to go chasing. If Albion score first then it could test the confidence of a Reading side who are still trying to piece together their ambitions for the season. Conversely, if Reading make the breakthrough then Ejaria and Puscas could be free to express themselves like on Sunday, with John Swift serving up a conveyor belt of chances once more. Johnstone, who has been under fire from certain sections of the Albion fan base, will be desperate to keep a first clean sheet of the season. That said, Reading, like Albion, have found the net in all games in all competitions this season, so expect goals.
With Leeds hosting Brentford and Bristol City travelling to Derby, this could be a chance for Albion to pick up points while some of the other promotion favourites battle it out. BTTS looks nailed on once again and my score prediction is 2-1 Albion.