The Valérien Ismaël era kicks off at the Vitality Stadium on Friday evening although the start of the season is being overshadowed by the transfer speculation surrounding Albion’s star player Matheus Pereira who appears to be on the verge of joining Saudi Arabian side, Al Hilal.
The financial impact of COVID means that the majority of clubs in the Championship are struggling financially, but Albion and Bournemouth are two of the four clubs that are benefitting from parachute payments and, therefore, have stronger budgets. With the Baggies facing another of those “big four”, Sheffield United, in game three, it is a tough start for Ismaël’s team.
Albion have had a good pre-season, completing their friendly programme without conceding a goal albeit without really being tested. The Cherries, on the other hand, beat Spanish third tier side, Linense, 4-2, lost 2-1 to Granada in Malaga before returning to the UK to be beaten by Chelsea. However, they do have the advantage of having already played a competitive fixture – clubs in the first round of the Carabao Cup were allowed to agree a date between 31st July and 4th August as an alternative to the scheduled dates next week, and Bournemouth agreed with MK Dons to play last Saturday with Scott Parker enjoying a 5-0 victory in his first competitive match as Cherries boss.
While it effectively replaced a friendly, as a competitive fixture it will have carried an extra edge and Parker evidently felt confident that they would win even though their pre-season would not have been fully complete. It leaves them with a free week next week when the majority of Championship clubs will play their EFL Cup first round fixtures. Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town were the only other clubs to switch dates, playing on Sunday, while Fulham and Albion have byes to the second round having avoided a bottom place finish in the Premier League.
While the Cherries were demolishing the Dons, Albion were recording an impressive 4-0 win over Birmingham City at St Andrew’s to complete their friendly programme in style. Ismaël’s team lined up with what has become a familiar 3-4-3 formation with a fluid front three. With Matt Phillips self-isolating due to a close contact, Callum Robinson played in the middle of the front three with Karlan Grant and Grady Diangana either side.
Mowatt and Livermore look to have become Big Val’s preferred central midfield duo with Townsend and Furlong operating as wing backs. At St Andrew’s, the back three was O’Shea, Bartley and Clarke but I’m not sure that trio will be the first choice with Semi Ajayi having started all the previous friendlies.
David Button has been the regular between the sticks in pre-season, but there are suggestions that Sam Johnstone may be involved in the near future despite doubts over his future.
I suspect that the starting eleven at the Vitality will be very similar to the one that kicked off at Birmingham. Ismaël has indicated that new signing, Adam Reach, will not be involved having not had enough time to build up the levels of physical fitness that the Frenchman demands. Matt Phillips, who signed a new contract this week, is likely to start and I’m expecting Ajayi to replace O’Shea in the back three alongside Clarke and Bartley, who has also put pen to paper on a new deal.
As for Scott Parker’s side, they should line up in the former Fulham boss’s preferred 4-3-3. Last weekend, Dominic Solanke led the front three with David Brooks, arguably the Cherries’ best player, and Jaidon Anthony either side of him. It was 21-year-old Anthony’s first start for Bournemouth despite joining the club in 2016 while in midfield, new signing Emiliano Marcondes, a free transfer from Brentford, also made his full debut for the club, as did 20-year-old defender, Zeno Ibsen Rossi.
Despite the number of debutants, the starting line up on Friday night is likely to be very similar with Parker’s line ups for the friendlies looking pretty similar and a number of players are unavailable through injury and suspension.
Experienced duo Lewis Cook and Jefferson Lerma are unavailable – Cook is recovering from an ACL injury while Lerma was handed a six game ban in June for biting Josh Windass in a match with Sheffield Wednesday in November last year.
Meanwhile, last season’s captain, Steve Cook, has not featured in pre-season as he struggles to return from a knee injury and Chris Mepham will also be unavailable as he serves a suspension picked up at the end of last season. Jack Stacey, new signing Leif Davis, Ben Pearson and Arnaut Danjuma are also likely to miss out.
In contrast, Ismaël will have an almost full squad to choose from – apart from Reach, the only players who may be unavailable are youngsters Quevin Castro and Taylor Gardner-Hickman who picked up minor knocks in training.
At the beginning of any new campaign, it is always tricky to predict how games will go – friendly results are a notoriously unreliable predictor of early season form and it is not until real competitive games get going that a team’s true potential starts to show.
Having said that, the feeling around the Albion camp is really positive and Bournemouth are missing some of their more experienced campaigners, particularly in defensive areas. It could be a good time for the Baggies to play the Cherries and perhaps steal an early march on one of their promotion rivals.
As the first game of the new English season, the interest in the match will inevitably be heightened and, if there is a winner, they will put an early mark down for the other two of the Championship big four. The Blades kick off their campaign on Saturday evening with a home game with Birmingham City while Fulham host Middlesbrough on Sunday.
However, the biggest thing about this game is that the fans are back! It will be the first time that the Baggies will have played before away fans for 17 months. I’m sure the backing will be as vocal as ever, and let’s hope the boys can reward the travelling support with all three points.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
17 Mar 2018 – Premier League
AFC Bournemouth 2 (Ibe, Stanislas)
West Brom 1 (Rodriguez)
12 Aug 2017 – Premier League
West Brom 1 (Hegazi)
AFC Bournemouth 0
Last win at AFC Bournemouth
23 Aug 2011 – League Cup 2nd Round
AFC Bournemouth 1 (Lovell)
West Brom 4 (Thomas, Fortuné (2), Cox)
Albion’s Record against AFC Bournemouth
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