After a weekend which saw the two teams immediately behind them drop points, Albion face Stoke City at the Hawthorns on Monday evening knowing that a victory would move them four points clear at the top and eight points ahead of third-placed Fulham.
Leeds defeat at QPR meant that they missed out on the chance to move back to top spot, and was compounded by the red card for key midfielder, Kalvin Phillips, that will see him miss Leeds’ next three Championship fixtures.
Brentford, meanwhile, could only draw 0-0 at struggling Huddersfield Town which means that Fulham remain in the third spot they took on Friday evening thanks to their victory over Middlesbrough.
On many occasions during the autumn, Slaven Bilić’s side were forced to play catch up when playing after Leeds United due to television schedules, but on this occasion, they can extend their lead at the top.
Standing in their way is Michael O’Neill’s Stoke City who are looking for their first victory at the Hawthorns for more than five years. Such a statement would have seemed incredulous in the none too distant past when the Potters seemed to hold some sort of Indian sign over Albion, but the Baggies have lost just one of their last ten meetings with Stoke and are looking to complete successive league doubles on Monday evening. The only time that has happened before was in the first two seasons of league football between 1888 and 1890.
The Potters have enjoyed something of a recovery under Michael O’Neill having lifted themselves out of the relegation zone, if only just, from their rock bottom position when the Ulsterman took over in November.
Results have been mixed with former Green Army boss having won five and lost five of his twelve games in charge, although two of his most impressive results have come on the road with his first game, a 4-2 win at Barnsley, and their last away game, a 5-2 win at Huddersfield.
They have, however, lost all of their other away games under O’Neill, and it is that statistic that will give Baggies fans hope that Bilić’s team can record their first victory at the Hawthorns since that 5-1 demolition of Swansea City six weeks ago.
There has been an uptick in Albion’s performances in the last few games, and if it were not for the reappearance of set piece fragility at the Valley last weekend, they would be another two points clear at the top. Those worries must surely have Bilić considering a recall for Ahmed Hegazi whose aerial prowess was a key part of the Baggies defence last season.
The Egyptian’s delayed surgery in the summer saw him lose his spot in the starting line up at the beginning of this season and, before now, there has been little chance of him regaining his place given the form of Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi. However, his commanding performance in the FA Cup tie at Charlton, albeit against a youthful side, plus the goals conceded in the league game last weekend, have raised the possibility of a recall.
If that is under consideration, one key question would be which of the centre backs would step down. Bartley’s form of late has arguably been stronger than that of Ajayi, but the pace of the Nigerian international is a hugely important part of the way Albion play and that may see him get the nod over his bearded teammate.
Grady Diangana remains a Baggie for the time being, at least, with the club reportedly looking to confirm his stay at the Hawthorns with an increased loan fee with the possibility of even extending it for a further season. He showed enough in his substitute appearance at the Valley last week to remind Albion fans of what they had been missing, and the expectation is that he will be back in the starting line up on Monday evening.
That will mean a change to the front four that started at Charlton. That was a surprise to many with both Hal Robson-Kanu and Kenneth Zohore starting with Pereira pushed out wide. KenZo responded with his second goal in as many games and it leaves Bilić with a choice to make.
Selection decisions need to be made in the knowledge that this match is the first of three games in eight days, with the trip to Cardiff City rearranged for next Tuesday. The Croat has already indicated that he will be making extensive use of his squad for the cup tie at West Ham on Saturday ahead of a hectic February, so whoever does miss out could well be in line for a start at the London Stadium.
One other consideration that may come into play in the next few weeks are yellow cards. Romaine Sawyers and Jake Livermore both picked up their fifth yellow cards in the game at Hull City and were, therefore, both suspended for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday. Albion managed to get all three points that day, but with Livermore now on eight yellow cards, and Sawyers on seven, it raises the prospect that it could happen again, with a ten cautions resulting in a two match ban.
The midfield two have been largely unchanged this season – Livermore has played every minute of league football this season other than the game against Wednesday, while Sawyers has only additionally missed the defeat to Middlesbrough last month. It will be interesting to see whether either gets a rest during the coming weeks with the yellow card count in mind.
Bilić’s injury worries are all at full back with Kieran Gibbs ruled out for a few weeks and Nathan Ferguson struggling with a knee injury. The youngster continues to cause consternation with his failure to sign a contract, heightened with the prospect that Louie Barry could be moving to Villa Park with Albion yet to receive any of the pittance Barcelona are due to pay for him. Both situations are unsatisfactory, but there is little more the club can do at this stage.
Townsend and Furlong are likely to start once again on Monday, with Albion running an eye over free agent, Martin Olsson, who would provide cover on the left.
In fairness, Albion have been fairly fortunate with injuries so far this season, with Kieran Gibbs and Grady Diangana the most damaging, but with the West Ham loanee fit again, it will be a strong line-up on Monday evening, and one that should be good enough to get the first Hawthorns victory of the new decade.
The days of Stoke City being Albion’s biggest bogey side seem long gone given that the Baggies have won seven of the last ten meetings with the Potters, which, not coincidentally, started when scourge of former clubs, Tony Pulis, was appointed as Albion boss.
The “bogey period” started with a 0-0 draw at the Victoria Ground in April 1989, the first in a run of 36 meetings during which Albion recorded just three victories, but the meeting before that was one to remember for Baggies fans.
The two sides met in December 1988 with Albion, like today, on a promotion charge. Despite losing their manager in October when Ron Atkinson deserted the club for the second time, this time to Atlético Madrid, player-manager, Brian Talbot, had managed to engineer a fantastic run of form. He won his first five games in charge, a run that saw the Baggies rise to second in the table, although by the time they were due to face Stoke City on the Sunday before Christmas, they had fallen back to sixth place.
It was a game of particular significance for Talbot as he had only left the Victoria Ground for the Hawthorns the previous January, although he had already played against the Potters that year, scoring a penalty in a 2-0 home win in April.
The hosts started the game brightly attacking down the right through Wayne Dobbins straight from the kick off. He initially won a throw-in with help from John Paskin, which was taken by Stacey North but cleared for an Albion corner. Colin Anderson swung the ball in, it flicked off the head of a Stoke defender and fell perfectly for Gary Robson to nod it home at the far post.
Anderson nearly made it 2-0 just before the half hour when his free kick was cleared to the edge of the box and he fired in a volley that was well saved by Potters’ ‘keeper, Peter Fox.
The Baggies didn’t have to wait long to double their lead, however, when Don Goodman latched on to a long ball over the top from Anderson and fired it past Fox into the net.
Into the second half, the manager almost got his name on the scoresheet when he fired in a shot from the edge of the box after another Anderson corner, but Fox managed to keep it out.
Twenty minutes after the break, Albion were under pressure but Dobbins managed to get onto a clearing header from North and the ball was helped into the path of Goodman by his strike partner, John Paskin. Goodman was brought down on the halfway line but the ball fell into the path of Talbot and the referee allowed play to continue. The player-manager surged forward and played in Anderson on the left wing. He drew the ‘keeper out before squaring for Paskin to finish with ease to make it 3-0.
The main talking point of the game came straight from the restart. The visitors took the ball forward and future Baggie, Tony Ford, was brought down by Robson. Colin Anderson was challenging for the ball as the referee blew his whistle and made contact with Ford on the ground. The Stoke striker took exception and kicked up at Anderson, striking the Albion winger in the face. With Ford feigning injury to the arm with which Anderson had made contact, the referee ultimately came to the right decision and produced the red card.
3-0 up against ten men, Albion sought to take advantage. A few minutes later, Paskin got his second of the game as he poked home Robson’s cross.
With five minutes to go, Stuart Naylor’s box kick was flicked on by Paskin. Dobbins got hold of the ball after it was headed out by a Stoke defender and played a neat ball over the top to Paskin, who laid it into the path of Goodman to score his second goal of the game.
Robson became the third player to notch a brace when he finished off a sweeping move, blasting the ball into the net after his header from Anderson’s cross was initially saved.
It finished 6-0 and Albion moved up into third place in the table, and went on to go top after a 4-0 win over Shrewsbury Town in the first match of 1989. It all went wrong, of course, as Goodman was injured in the FA Cup replay at Goodison Park and Albion’s form fell away, eventually finishing 9th.
South African, John Paskin, showed promise that day but would not score again for Albion and was sold to Wolves the following summer for £75,000.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
4 Nov 2019 – League Championship
Stoke City 0
West Brom 2 (Phillips, Robson-Kanu (pen))
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
1 Sep 2018 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Gayle (2))
Stoke City 1 (Pieters)
Albion’s Record against Stoke City