Ahead of this weekend, Albion sit on top of the Championship but there is a sense that an opportunity was missed in a week where Slaven Bilić’s men dropped four points at home, points which could have given them a commanding six point lead.
As it stands, however, the Baggies could feasibly be as low as fifth by the time they kick off on Monday evening should the four clubs below them all claim three points, or even sixth should the Robins beat the Tykes by six goals on Friday night!
It would be a remarkable set of results should Albion still be in first place after the weekend, but whatever happens, victory in the Potteries would see them move back to the summit.
Having failed to win any of their first ten Championship games, Stoke City won successive games over two of the play-off hopefuls which kept under pressure boss, Nathan Jones, in a job for the time being. That has been followed with another two defeats, however, which leaves the Potters second bottom with eight points, only above Barnsley on goal difference.
Obviously, last Wednesday was clear evidence that Albion can ill afford to take any opponents lightly and there should be no doubt that this will a tough game. Furthermore, while Stoke may not be the bogey side for Albion that they once were, they have won only 12 of 72 games on their patch, albeit three of those coming in their last eight visits including the 1-0 win in the last campaign.
The last two games were obviously frustrating in terms of results, but their were big positives from both games. Against Barnsley, the visitors were somewhat fortunate to be two up given the balance of play, but Albion showed their mettle to get back to 2-2 and could, and perhaps should, have won the match.
On Saturday, many chances were missed but they managed to get back in front despite going down to ten men and were only denied the points by a very late and very questionable refereeing decision.
Other results meant that Albion kept their two point lead at the top of the table, but they will surely need to take maximum points from their next two away games if they are to keep ahead of the chasing pack.
Super Slav has rarely changed the starting line up so far this season, but one change will be enforced for Monday’s game as Nathan Ferguson will serve the first of his three match suspension for his red card against Charlton. Conor Townsend replaced the youngster at half time against Barnsley and played well, and he is in line for his first league start of the season with Kieran Gibbs unlikely to have recovered from a broken toe.
One other change that the Croat may look to make is up front. Charlie Austin has not yet started firing despite scoring his first league goal before the international break. Hal Robson-Kanu, meanwhile, has come of the bench to score two vital goals in the last three matches and Ken Zohore is fit once again and grabbed a brace for the U23s in midweek.
Whether Austin deserves to be dropped, or rested, is debatable. He’s missed a few chances, but I’m not sure he’s done that much wrong. He does link up well and, arguably, opens up space for the three players behind him, and they are not short of goals. In some ways, the lone striker in the system that Albion are employing is not intended to be the chief source of goals and, while a more mobile striker might offer a different attacking option, neither KenZo nor HRK are offering much increased mobility. The question then becomes, who would you trust most to put the chances away when they come?
At the back, I personally don’t see a case for bringing Hegazi into the side just yet despite having conceded four goals in the last two games. Looking back at the goals, I’m struggling to identify any specific mistakes that led any of them with them being either good play or fortunate. Potentially Ferguson was beaten a little to easily for the first Tykes goal, but it was very well worked. Ajayi did put in his worst performance of the season against Barnsley, but it is difficult to drop him on the basis of that game, particularly given the excellent joint performance of him and Bartley at Middlesbrough.
So despite the frustration, Albion are obviously still well placed and, more importantly, they are still playing well. They will go into Monday’s game as favourites, but it is tricky to know what to expect from Stoke.
In their last game at the Bet365 Stadium, Nathan Jones’ team beat Fulham 2-0, but that is their only home win since March. Albion failed to take advantage of a Barnsley side in poor form last week, and it would be careless for them to not put a fragile Stoke side to the sword on Monday.
If the Baggies play somewhere close to their potential, three points are there for the taking. An early goal for Albion would surely dent confidence levels both on the pitch and in the stands, and I do feel that the first goal could be all important.
Before that, we must watch all our rivals as they seek to replace us at the top of the table. Of the top six, only Leeds United are playing at home this weekend which makes them favourites to be on top come Sunday evening, but in this league, who knows?
This week I look back to a match that I attended some 27 years ago, a game that remains one of the most entertaining I have witnessed live.
In September 1992, Ossie Ardiles’ Albion travelled to play Stoke City top of the table, as they may do on Monday evening should results go their way. It was a little different back then, the Baggies were still unbeaten having earned 19 points from a possible 21 albeit in the third tier of English football, Division Two.
The venue was different as well, as the Potters were still playing at the Victoria Ground and, while Albion hadn’t beaten them for five years, they weren’t yet the bogey side that they would become over the next two decades.
It was a fairly tight affair early on until a horrendous error by the hosts’ ‘keeper, Tony Parks. He miscued a clearance kick straight to Albion’s on fire number nine, Bob Taylor. Taylor rounded the hapless Parks to score his ninth goal of the season, giving the Baggies the lead after 26 minutes.
It stayed that way until the stroke of half time when the hosts’ midfielder, Steve Foley, picked up a loose ball in the middle of the park and drove towards the Albion goal. Darren Bradley’s tackle rebounded kindly for Foley and he was one-on-one with Stuart Naylor, and lifted the ball over the on rushing Baggies stopper to put Lou Macari’s team level at the break.
In the first minute of the second half, it got even better for City. Once again, it was a loose ball in the middle of the park that Paul Ware latched onto and launched it into the right hand channel for Mark Stein. He got to the byline and squared the ball into the centre of the goal where Ware got onto the end of the cross – he was denied by Naylor, but Kevin Russell was on hand to smash home the rebound to put the hosts in front.
There was still plenty of time to go, however, and Albion had an unbeaten record to protect. Despite plenty of chances, it took more than twenty minutes for another goal to be scored, and it was the visitors who got it.
There were just under twenty minutes to go when substitute, Wayne Fereday, crossed the ball in from the left wing and Bob Taylor nodded the ball home from the six yard box to make it ten goals in ten games for the former Bristol City striker.
Just three minutes later, Taylor turned provider as he played the ball wide to Simon Garner who lashed it into the top corner from the right edge of the penalty area.
The scoring was not done, however, as the game would take another twist. Stoke’s equaliser was straight out of the Wimbledon playbook as a goal kick from Parks was flicked on by Wayne Biggins to Stein; the diminutive striker played in Russell who rounded Naylor for his second goal of the game with just 13 minutes left.
Six minutes later, the Potters were back in front as Ian Cranson headed home Russell’s corner, finding the net off the bar, and that was enough to give City the points.
It may have been Albion’s first league defeat of the season, but it was the start of four losses in five games for Ardiles’ men whose vulnerability at the back was starting to cost them points. Ultimately, of course, it was a rollercoaster ride of a season that ended with a play off final victory at Wembley and the start of the long road back to the top flight.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
9 Feb 2019 – League Championship
Stoke City 0
West Brom 1 (Gayle)
Albion’s Record against Stoke City