With suggestions that Slaven Bilić’s job may be on the line, the Croat takes his side on their longest trip of the season to St James’s Park to take on Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United.
Bruce, of course, has his own problems after an outbreak of COVID-19 at their Darsley Park training centre. With last week’s match as Aston Villa the first Premier League fixture this season to be postponed for that reason, reports suggest that as many as twelve first team players will still be self isolating on Saturday when the team faces West Bromwich Albion.
It does seem harsh on the Tynesiders that the Premier League have set a figure of fourteen players unavailable as the threshold for a match to be called off, but it is an opportunity that Bilić and his team cannot afford to pass up, and is perhaps one of the few pieces of luck that the Baggies have had this season.
Which Newcastle players will be unable to play has not been released, so there seems little point in speculating on Bruce’s line up, while Albion have a near full squad to choose from with a couple of notable exceptions.
Matheus Pereira will serve the first of his three-match suspension following his harsh red card last weekend, while Hal Robson-Kanu, Conor Townsend and Sam Field are all ruled out through injury. Jake Livermore, however, will be available for selection.
Bilić was criticised in some quarters for his decision to play Matt Phillips at left wing back last weekend when Kieran Gibbs was fit enough to be on the bench. Obviously, a place on the bench does not necessarily mean that Gibbs was fit enough to start, but a repeat selection this weekend will suggest that it is a purely tactical decision. To be fair to Phillips, I don’t think that he did much wrong against Palace but a fully fit and on form Gibbs would surely be a preferred option – the question is whether the former Arsenal man is doing enough in training to impress Bilić.
While Albion were defensively poor in the last thirty minutes on Sunday, they had performed reasonably well in the previous few games and I’d be surprised to see many changes in the rest of the back five. Further forward, however, there are decisions to make.
Assuming Bilić sticks with the 3-5-2 formation, Conor Gallagher is potentially the only one of the front five that can be sure of his place. Jake Livermore, Romaine Sawyers and Filip Krovinović would seem to be those battling for the other two midfield positions – the Croat would seem to be the most obvious option to replace Pereira in the number ten position, although Sawyers did play there earlier in his career and could be a surprise choice.
Up front, Bilić’s decision to play Diangana did not work well and I’d be surprised if Callum Robinson, arguably Albion’s most impressive forward this campaign, didn’t start. Last weekend, Kamil Grosicki and Charlie Austin were both named as substitutes, the first time either has been involved in a matchday squad for a Premier League game since the opening day of the season when both were on the bench against Leicester City. Whether than means that either may be considered for a start is debateable, although Austin is more suited to playing in a two and Karlan Grant is continuing to struggle to find form.
Whatever the team, Albion need to make the most of the opportunity that Newcastle are likely to be under strength. The confidence earned through the win over Sheffield United has been lost and Bilić somehow needs to get the players up once again.
It’s another massive game and, if some reports are to believed, it could be the Croatian’s last in charge should the Baggies lose again. Personally, I think that would be unfair – Bilić has not been given the tools to succeed having won promotion ahead of schedule, and I’m not sure anyone could do much better.
I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that, and the best way to ensure that it doesn’t is for Albion to come away with all three points, just as they did from their last visit to Tyneside.
For the history and statistics of this fixture, click here.