February was always going to be a crucial month for Albion’s promotion hopes and, with two games of the month left, Slaven Bilić has guided his team to four wins and one draw to see the gap to third place extend to nine points.
On Tuesday evening, Alex Neil’s Preston North End visit the Hawthorns looking to consolidate their place in the top six. Bristol City’s home defeat to the Baggies at the weekend plus the Lilywhites’ own victory over Hull City means that a three point gap has opened up between Preston in sixth and the Robins in seventh.
On North End’s last visit to the Hawthorns in April, there was much speculation that Alex Neil would be the next man to lead Albion. He used the opportunity to earn a new contract at Deepdale while Jimmy Shan’s Baggies won the game 4-1 and ultimately appointed Slaven Bilić – a narrow escape, perhaps!
The man to score the visitors’ goal on that day will be facing his old team for the first time. That was one of Callum Robinson’s twelve Championship goals for Preston last season that helped earn him a move to the Premier League in the summer. Now back in the second tier on loan, he is loving life at the Baggies and will surely relish playing against his former teammates. In all, Robinson scored 41 goals in 160 appearances for the Lilywhites.
Alex Neil’s side are on a run of just one defeat in eight games since they lost back-to-back home games either side of the New Year. That includes winning their last two on the road, albeit at strugglers Barnsley and Wigan. Preston’s success this season has been based largely on their home form – they are 12th in the away table and no team in the Championship has scored fewer than their 15 goals on their travels, although a third of those have come in their last two away matches.
This is a meeting of the two form teams in the division with both teams having earned thirteen points from their last six matches. It is a remarkable turnaround for the Baggies who were bottom of the form table at the beginning of the month. Confidence is now running strongly through the team, and they will approach this game with the belief that they can earn all three points, particularly after such an impressive victory at Ashton Gate on Saturday.
Bilić will be forced into at least one change to his starting line up as Romaine Sawyers will serve the first of his three match ban for his red card in that match. There isn’t an obvious replacement for the man who has been Albion’s quarterback for much of the season, although there are a few decent options, including veterans Gareth Barry and Chris Brunt, although Barry is struggling with a calf injury. Given that the Baggies also have a cup tie to navigate next Tuesday, Bilić will have to manage the squad carefully, particularly with the older legs almost certain to be involved.
I think the red card for Sawyers may have a silver lining. He had come in for criticism in recent weeks and a rest may be exactly what he needs. Pereira’s suspension led to others stepping up and their performances helped to galvanise the team – Sawyers has not been as influential in recent weeks as he was earlier in the season, but that role at the base of midfield to orchestrate the play is a key one, and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the team adapts.
The other potential change is at centre back where Ahmed Hegazi was rewarded for some good work in training with a start on Saturday. I’m sure Kyle Bartley’s recent troubles were also a factor, and I think that the Egyptian’s display at Ashton Gate will see him retain his place.
I’m not expecting any other changes given recent strong performances, although Sawyers’ absence may lead to a tweak in tactics. This sort of situation is, however, exactly why Gareth Barry was given a contract in the summer. As long as Livermore’s performances continue at the high levels we have seen of late, it is an absence that Albion should cope with well.
This will, however, be another tough test for the Baggies. They have found it more difficult on their own patch to get results and Preston are in good form. Nonetheless, it is a game that Albion are capable of winning and winning well.
Albion are looking to extend a ten match winning run in matches against Preston North End at the Hawthorns. After going twenty years without meeting one another in a league game, the Lilywhites visited the Hawthorns in April 1992 for a Division Three encounter and were beaten 3-0.
They have left the Shrine defeated on each of their nine visits since and the aggregate score in those ten games is 24-8 with the 4-1 win towards the end of last season the biggest victory of that run.
It was the sixth time that the Baggies have scored four goals against North End but, incredibly, not all of them resulted in victory. In January 1895, Preston won 5-4 at Stoney Lane with Billy Bassett scoring two for the hosts, while Frank Becton grabbed a hat trick for the visitors.
Last season’s victory, in which Dwight Gayle bagged a hat trick, was Albion’s third 4-1 victory over Preston. The previous occasion was in 1957 when Vic Buckingham’s team took the points thanks to goals from Roy Horobin, Frank Griffin, Derek Kevan and Ronnie Allen. Three years later, Albion managed to keep a clean sheet in what remains their record win over the Lilywhites – Kevan and Allen were once again on the scoresheet, while Alec Jackson added to an own goal by Garbutt Richardson to make the final score 4-0.
Albion have won their last four games against Preston having recorded back-to-back victories at Deepdale, and North End’s last victory at the Hawthorns was in a Division Two fixture in September 1973 when Bobby Charlton’s team won 2-0 thanks to goals from Mel Holden and Alex Bruce.
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All competitions; most recent game on the right
2 Dec 2019 – League Championship
Preston North End 0
West Brom 1 (Austin (pen))
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
13 Apr 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 4 (Gayle (3), Rodriguez)
Preston North End 1 (Robinson)
Albion’s Record against Preston North End