After a relaxing international break with the Baggies sitting proudly on top of the Championship, league football returns this weekend with Slaven Bilić taking his side on their longest away trip of the season to Middlesbrough.
It may have been a fortnight since Albion returned to the summit, but the last time that they managed to stay on top of a division for more than one match was in February 2010. Roberto di Matteo’s team were top on many occasions in the first half of that season, but dropped away slightly after the turn of the year but returned to top spot with a win at home Scunthorpe United and retained it with a draw at Cardiff City. Defeat at Bristol City saw them drop to third place and they never got back on top for the rest of the season.
It is so tight at the top of the Championship this campaign, that it is likely that only a victory would see them retain their place. Five clubs could move above Albion by the end of the weekend should they earn no more than a point at the Riverside, although the fact that Forest don’t play until Sunday means that a win would guarantee top spot for Saturday night at least.
Recent performances have buoyed the hopes of Baggies fans that this side could become the one to beat in the Championship this season. Leeds United probably still hold that mantle for the time being, but pundits are starting to discuss Albion in the same breath as Bielsa’s promotion favourites with many seeing those two clubs as the stand out candidates for the automatic spots.
We all know, of course, that promotion can’t be won before Christmas. At the same stage last season, the two clubs that sat atop the Championship with 22 points each were Leeds United and Saturday’s opponents, Middlesbrough. The Whites threw it away in the final few weeks of the season while Pulis’s ‘Boro were out of the running for automatic promotion long before then.
The Smoggies’ recent form makes them an attractive opponent for Albion with them having lost three of their last four games and on a run of just one win in seven matches. They have managed to unshackle themselves from Welshman much more quickly than Albion did, and there are some similarities in the post-Pulis era at the Riverside as a former centre back has taken the reins and is trying to change the style of play.
At the Hawthorns, while Darren Moore took the job on in April 2018, it was Pardew who had the first attempt at de-Pulisifying the club, and failed abysmally – Jonathan Woodgate is seemingly having similar problems on Teesside. After a rip-roaring 3-3 draw at Luton Town to open the Champsionship campaign, goals have proved difficult to score for ‘Boro and even more difficult to prevent. Both their league victories have been by the Pulis-like score of 1-0 but their last two defeats have been particularly worrying. They lost 4-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday after what Woodgate described as a “terrible” display, while they made Birmingham City look like world-beaters last time out and Blues should have won by more than the 2-1 scoreline.
Middlesbrough, however, still have some good players with the likes of Britt Assombalonga, Jonny Howson, Ashley Fletcher and George Friend, and should still be regarded as difficult opponents on their own patch. Last season, Pulis’s team achieved a league double over Albion with Daniel Ayala’s last minute handball goal in the away game particularly hard to take, but on their previous second tier visit to the Riverside, the Baggies left with a thumping 5-0 victory which is something that the travelling supporters would delight in seeing repeated.
Only a handful of the Baggies team saw action over the international break, but one or two did make their mark. Ahmed Hegazi played his first football of the season earning a yellow card and a clean sheet as Egypt beat Botswana 1-0 under new head coach, Hossam El Badry. Meanwhile, Semi Ajayi was widely lauded for his performance for Nigeria as they drew 1-1 with Brazil in Singapore.
The possible return of Hegazi to the side is one of the quandaries that Bilić faces in the coming weeks. Ajayi’s performances would suggest that his place is safe, although the long trip to far east may be a factor in deciding the starting line up for Saturday. Bartley has also been performing well and it would be harsh to drop him – my feeling is that, at the moment, it will take an injury or a severe drop in form to see the Egyptian regain his place in the side. Should that happen, however, he may be hard to shift.
The rest of the side is also very settled with a number of good players having to sit on the sidelines. Kieran Gibbs is only making headlines in the gossip pages at the moment while I’m sure he would prefer to be standing out on the pitch, while the form of Chris Willock for the PL2 side has led to calls for his inclusion in the first team squad. However, with Pereira, Diangana, Phillips and Edwards all performing well, it is difficult to see when Willock’s opportunity will come in the short term.
These are all good problems to have and Slaven Bilić seems to be handling them well with players reporting that the atmosphere in the group is excellent, even amongst those who are not playing regularly. The Croatian is fast becoming a legend at the Hawthorns.
Albion should obviously avoid complacency, and away games in the Championship are never easy, but if they are serious about being a real contender for the top two, Saturday’s match is one that they should win. ‘Boro are struggling for form, have looked vulnerable in recent games, and the Baggies are flying high.
The expectation is for another three points. Bilić and his team just have to deliver once again.
Albion victories on Teesside have been few and far between over the years, with only eight having been recorded, and it’s hard to look further than the last one as a match to remember.
In September 2009, Albion travelled to Middlesbrough for a top-of-the-table clash against one of the sides that had been relegated with them from the Premier League a few months earlier. Seven games into the new season, the Baggies were unbeaten and top of the table with 17 points while ‘Boro were in second just a point behind.
Current England manager, Gareth Southgate, was in charge of the Teessiders as they sought to bounce back to the top flight immediately, but this match was perhaps the first sign that it would prove difficult. It ultimately took them another seven years.
It was the hosts who threatened first although McMahon’s shot was way off target and ended up being chested into the arms of Scott Carson by Gianni Zuiverloon.
Joe Mattock earned a free kick on the left hand side for Albion and Graham Dorrans’ cross into the box was headed just over his own bar by Julio Arca with Roman Bednar threatening.
On 15 minutes, Rhys Williams was dispossessed by what could be described as a robust challenge by Roman Bednar, but referee, Trevor Kettle, decided it was fair and Williams took his own retribution seconds later scything down Jerome Thomas to earn himself a yellow card. More importantly, it gave Albion a free kick in the centre of the pitch some 22 yards out – Chris Brunt territory. The former ‘Boro youth player didn’t disappoint although his shot passed through the wall deflecting into the left corner of the net to give the visitors the lead.
Just after the half hour, it was 2-0. Dorrans played the ball back to Shelton Martis and then started a run forward. Martis played it to Carson who launched the ball towards the opposition penalty area. Dorrans had continued his run and was way beyond the defence but onside – ‘Boro ‘keeper, Danny Coyne, got there first but his clearance went straight to Chris Brunt, and the Ulsterman returned the ball over Coyne’s head into the net from some 40 yards.
The visitors were now dominating winning the ball back at every opportunity. Just before the break, Brunt and Zuiverloon swarmed over Mark Yeates near the halfway line, and the ball broke to Mulumbu. He drove forward and found Luke Moore on the edge of the box. Moore returned it to the Congolese midfielder who fed Dorrans on the left hand side of the box. The Scotsman’s cross was perfect for Mulumbu who had continued his run and finished with a header from eight yards to make it 3-0.
In the second half, Sean St Ledger, who was making his debut on loan from Preston, seriously tested Carson for the first time with a header that the one-time England goalkeeper saved with ease. Generally, though, the match was over as a contest and the Baggies added two more goals late on to give the scoreline a real gloss.
Bednar scored the fourth goal, firing into the corner of the net from the edge of the box after a weak clearance from Grounds, while Jerome Thomas rounded it all off with a solo goal, his first for the club, in the last minute of normal time after having been put through by Graham Dorrans.
It was a real statement result for Roberto di Matteo’s team, but ultimately it was Newcastle United who ran away with the title. They won 4-0 at Ipswich the following week to move above Albion as they lost at home to Crystal Palace, and barely relinquished top spot for the remainder of the season finishing 11 points clear at the top with 102 points. The Baggies, of course, where promoted as runners up with a club record 91 points.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
2 Feb 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Rodriguez, Gayle)
Middlesbrough 3 (Saville, Assombalonga (2))
Last meeting at Middlesbrough
24 Aug 2018 – League Championship
Middlesbrough 1 (Ayala)
West Brom 0
17 Apr 2010 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Cox, Bednar)
Last win at Middlesbrough
19 Sep 2009 – League Championship
West Brom 5 (Brunt (2), Mulumbu, Bednar, Thomas)
Albion’s Record against Middlesbrough