After Albion were beaten at Crystal Palace four weeks ago, I, along with many others, concluded that any hopes they had of escaping relegation were gone. And then Allardyce’s team went to Stamford Bridge and shocked the Premier League with an accomplished performance including five fantastic goals, and those hopes were rekindled.
However, they will be immediately dashed once again should the Baggies fail to beat Southampton on Monday evening. In what is arguably the easiest of their remaining fixtures, at least in terms of the opponents’ league position, Albion must take all three points and then go on to win another four or five of their last seven games. Premier League survival remains a highly unlikely outcome.
Nevertheless, while the three points at Chelsea was unexpected, it was the performance that did more to leave Baggies’ fans dreaming of the greatest of great escapes. There is no doubt that displays have improved since the end of January, but there had been little sign that a performance of that quality was around the corner. There had been some good football, but any chances that had been created had been spurned. Furthermore, Albion’s most talented player, Matheus Pereira, had been playing well below par.
All that changed at the Bridge as the Brazilian rediscovered his form and Albion found their scoring boots, but survival is only a possibility if they are able to reproduce that sort of form in most of their remaining eight games. Otherwise, it will be a meaningless, albeit enjoyable, freak result.
One of the key elements to that display was, of course, the performance of Callum Robinson, a player that had been largely ignored by Sam Allardyce. His introduction was every bit as important to the result as the red card for Thiago Silva, and he must surely have earned a starting place for Monday and another chance to prove that he can score against someone other than Chelsea!
Depending on the fitness of Dara O’Shea, Big Sam will be tempted to start with the team that played the second half of the game against Chelsea. Perhaps the biggest decision to make will be whether to recall Conor Gallagher who was ineligible to play against his parent club. I’d be tempted to bring him in at the expense of Ainsley Maitland-Niles not forgetting that the Arsenal loanee will himself be forced to sit out the trip to the Emirates in a few weeks’ time.
I think AMN has done OK but despite his feelings to the contrary, I’m not convinced he is a natural central midfielder, and he certainly has no chance of making the England squad in that position. It’s not that Gallagher is streets ahead of him, but I just think that the Chelsea man would offer a better balance assuming Callum Robinson is in the side.
As for Southampton, they have recovered a little from their dreadful league form winning two of their last four games after a run of one point from nine games, and have continued their progress in the FA Cup meeting Leicester City in the semi-final next weekend.
The Saints recovered from going 2-0 down at home to Burnley last weekend to win 3-2 and earn what was an important three points. It leaves them 14th in the table some ten points clear of 18th-placed Fulham and they may well feel that their Premier League status is all but secured. That could mean that the FA Cup will be more of a priority this week, and maybe Hasenhüttl will look to protect one or two players ahead of the semi-final.
Southampton were excellent against Albion in the reverse fixture in October, but they have not been able to maintain that form all season and until those recent victories, they were tumbling dangerously towards the bottom three. The difficulty of the Baggies’ task will largely depend on which Southampton turn up, and maybe the looming FA Cup semi-final will be to Albion’s benefit.
Last week’s game will certainly have raised confidence within the side, and Allardyce needs to do as much as possible to maintain that momentum. That means leaving the side largely unchanged from the one that took Chelsea apart.
There is a faint hope – I even found myself celebrating Wolves’ late winner at the Cottage on Friday night – but three points is a must and, if they come close to their performance from last week, it is eminently possible!