Albion’s third home match of the campaign sees them welcome a Blackburn side who are finding their feet after starting the season with two losses. Blackburn took 4 points from Albion last season, including a 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns that saw Rovers end the game with an outfielder in goal. A Craig Dawson header accompanied with a sulky non-celebration put the Baggies ahead before Albion (obviously) gave the ball away in their own final third and Harrison Reed did not spare Kyle Bartley his blushes. Criticisms that Albion didn’t test the makeshift goalkeeper enough, or weren’t direct enough that day seem to pertain now, even with new personnel and under a new manager. Last season at times it felt like our plan was get from front to back as fast as possible and trust the strikers to deliver. Crucially though, this season, while there are cries of ‘have a go’ or ‘test the keeper’, Albion are building an identity. They appear to be a very well balanced side whose only, missing component, crucially, is goals. It seems strange to question the attacking output of a side who have scored in all 6 games this season, however Kenneth Zohore penalties against Reading and Derby have papered over cracks in the final third. Albion simply aren’t penetrative enough, but with a wealth of attacking talent and such sustained possession, this should just be a matter of time.
Blackburn are settling into the season game by game, taking 7 points from their last 9, keeping three consecutive clean sheets in doing so. This may raise the eyebrows of a few Albion fans, who will be shocked to hear of a Tony Mowbray side keeping so many clean sheets. Mowbray brought an attacking flair and excitement to the Hawthorns during his tenure, but the memorable 2007/08 season in which Albion won the Championship never saw Mowbray’s side keep three consecutive clean sheets – a staggering statistic for title winners. Such defensive solidity may also surprise some after Rovers lost Charlie Mulgrew on loan to Wigan, but this has opened the door for Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams to continue a formidable centre-back partnership which has kept 7 clean sheets in 13 games.
While names like Lenihan and Williams may not jump off the team sheet, there is one man in the Blackburn ranks who every Albion fan will know the name of. Not only did Bradley Dack net the winner in a 2-1 win at Ewood Park on New Year’s Day, but every transfer window Albion fans (among many others) on social media voice a desire to sign the talented attacker. There are not many who would have suspected Dack to still be at Blackburn Rovers for at least another calendar year after that New Year’s Day goal, but a slump in form saw him score just five more league goals after that one. He has started this season much slower than last, with no goals in his first 5 league games, compared to the 3 he had at this stage of last season. Make no mistake, though, there is plenty of firepower in the Blackburn frontline. The likes of Danny Graham, Stuart Downing and Sam Gallagher are all proven at this level, even if goals have been at a premium for them so far, with Graham the only attacker to score for Blackburn this season. This solitary goal for a Rovers attacker was from the spot, something Kenneth Zohore knows all about.
The Albion number 9 got up and running for the season against Reading with a point-saving penalty, before proving lightning strikes twice with the same trick against Derby. Let’s not kid ourselves, Pereira dived to win the penalty against Derby, but what’s important is that he had forced the defender into a position where he dived in inside his penalty area. Krovinovic had played the ball to the Brazilian before he won the penalty, returning the favour for the ball Pereira played him to win the penalty against Reading. The records will show that Zohore has two in two from the spot, but watching the games will show that the combination of Krovinovic and Pereira is effective, to the point where Pereira has gone from knocking on the door to the verge of kicking it down.
One man who did not feature against Derby was Wednesday night starter Charlie Austin. What will surely go down as one of Kieran Gibbs worst afternoons in an Albion shirt meant that Albion could not roll the dice in the same way they had been in previous games, by bringing on three attackers in the second half. That will have been no doubt frustrating for Austin, who appears to just be in need of some match sharpness to reach the form everyone will be hoping for. Of course, the knock-on effect of Gibbs hobbling off after giving away Derby’s first penalty was that goalscorer Zohore remained on the pitch much later than he otherwise might have done…so thanks, Kieran.
As the inevitable murmurs of ‘can we play two up top?’ start to surface, both strikers will desperate for the nod on Saturday, before heading into the international break. Austin in particular will be itching to get off the mark, as I suspect it would feel like a long international break for the former Southampton marksman if he enters the first recess with no league goals. Despite this, I would expect Zohore to start against Blackburn and -all being well this time- Austin to feature from the bench as Bilic has shown he is fully prepared to reward good performances with appearances, see Ferguson and Diangana.
Albion will welcome a Blackburn side buoyed by victories against Boro and Hull, before a good point against Cardiff. One man who will be confident of a result will be Mowbray, who appears to be showing signs of tempering his all-out-attack approach that endeared him to so many at the Hawthorns in his first two seasons. Speaking of temper, Mowbray, like Bilic at Derby, saw red in midweek, so expect the game to be competed as fiercely on the touchline as it will be on the pitch. I think this will be the game where things start to click into place for Albion (inconveniently before the international break) and I predict Bilic’s side will record their first home win of the season with a 2-0 scoreline, with what would be the crowning moment of the early-season undefeated run. You might say, a coronation on Mowbray’s Rovers Return (sorry, I really tried not to).