A defeat against one or our major rivals for promotion would normally be a cue for much soul-searching and angst amongst Baggies fans but, while there is a general feeling of disappointment after Tuesday’s reverse at Leeds United, it is coloured with pride and optimism about what Slaven Bilić’s team could achieve. Attentions now turn to the visit of Cardiff City to the Hawthorns on Saturday as Albion look to kick off another unbeaten run.
The two clubs did not play each other for nearly thirty years encompassing the eighties and nineties as the Bluebirds languished in the lower reaches of the Football League, but they renewed hostilities in Division One in 2003/04 and have had a few battles in the dozen meetings since then. The last meeting between the sides was the 3-3 draw back in 2014 which famously led to James Morrison hitting Saido Berahino in the dressing room after the young striker had given the ball away in the dying seconds leading to a City equaliser.
Albion have not recorded a league win over Cardiff since 2007 and the fixture is further spiced by the return of Neil Warnock to the Hawthorns. Colin, as he is less than affectionately known by Baggies fans, sealed his place on the Albion Black List back in 2003 for his part in the Battle of Bramall Lane. His last visit to the Shrine was as Crystal Palace manager in October 2014 when the aforementioned Berahino notched a 93rd minute equaliser, and Warnock hasn’t tasted defeat at the Hawthorns in four games as a manager since January 2001 when Lee Hughes grabbed a late winner against Sheffield United.
Having missed out on survival in the Premier League last season by only two points in the end, Cardiff started this season shakily with two defeats in their opening three games, but they are unbeaten in the league since and would move level on points with Albion should they win at the Hawthorns. That would, however, be their first win on the road this campaign having drawn their last three away games at Blackburn, Derby and Hull.
In midweek, Cardiff beat QPR 3-0 at the City of Cardiff Stadium, but that it was a game in which the visitors dominated possession with 72% of the ball but conceded poor goals, two of them from set pieces. Albion had issues with set pieces earlier in the campaign, particularly at home, so I imagine it is something that Bilić’s coaching team will have been highlighting in training this week.
I expect this to be a game in which the hosts dominate the possession, as they have done in most games this season, but Cardiff will be dangerous on the break and particularly at set pieces. The Baggies will need to take their chances and, having recorded their first clean sheet last weekend, a first shut out at the Hawthorns would be very welcome.
Confidence should be high despite Tuesday’s defeat. Albion may have ridden their luck on occasion during the club record-equalling unbeaten start to the season, but each match saw a modicum of improvement culminating in the most complete display at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium last weekend.
It could even be argued that the Baggies put in a better performance at Elland Road, given the relative merits of the opposition and, if the second half display had been rewarded with the equalising goal it deserved, I would firmly be in that camp. However, the goal didn’t come and, while Albion are only one shy of being the division’s top scorers, the nagging doubt remains about the fact that no recognised striker has scored a league goal from open play this season.
Austin has been slowly improving in recent weeks, but that goal is yet to come. I expect him to regain his starting spot this weekend having been rested for the trip to Leeds and, if a goal is needed late on, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bilić opted to switch to two up top for a final push. The 4-2-3-1 formation is proving to be successful, however, with Krovinović now the only one to have played in that supporting three not to have found the net this season.
Gibbs and Hegazi may be waiting in the wings, but I’d be surprised to see any other changes in the side. Ajayi and Bartley are both playing well while the two full-backs are pretty undroppable. Nathan Ferguson is looking remarkably comfortable at left back and, furthermore, playing both Gibbs and Furlong would be a little too attacking – Fergie is able to drop into a back three if needed, something we saw on occasion at QPR.
So I’m expecting the same starting line-up as last Saturday and Albion should be good enough to get back to winning ways, although it certainly won’t be easy.
In keeping with the comparisons between this season’s Albion and the “Team of the Century” of 1953/4, at least in terms of their unbeaten start, I’ve picked another memorable match from that remarkable season to look back on.
On 21st November 1953, Vic Buckingham’s table-topping side welcomed Cardiff City to the Hawthorns looking to recover from a 1-0 defeat at Molineux the week before.
The Bluebirds were in the top half of the table and they, too, were looking to bounce back from a loss, although theirs was a little more conclusive having been hammered 6-1 at home by Manchester United.
Albion had to make a late change to their starting line-up as Stan Rickaby had failed to recover from a muscle injury and he was replaced by Stuart Williams. It was the end of a remarkable run of 143 successive league appearances for Rickaby.
The change may have unsettled the hosts as it was Cardiff who started the brighter and opened the scoring in the fifth minute when Dougie Blair’s free kick was headed home by Ken Chisholm.
It was developing into a lively game with plenty of goalmouth action and, after Johnny Nicholls put a good chance over the bar, Ronnie Allen levelled the match on 14 minutes in controversial circumstances. The ball ricocheted to him off a defender and, suspecting he was off side, he almost apologetically poked the ball into the net. The referee awarded the goal ignoring the visitors’ protests.
Both goalkeepers were called into action before the Baggies took the lead before the half hour with Allen netting his second of the match. He only had to wait another seven minutes to complete his third hat trick of the season with Reg Ryan providing the assist.
The hosts had more chances before the break to extend their lead, but had to wait until six minutes into the second half to score their fourth goal. Ryan was once again the provider and, of course, it was Ronnie Allen who scored it firing a daisy cutter just inside the post.
Albion continued to dominate the game creating a host of chances, but somehow the Cardiff goal remained without further blemish until eleven minutes from the end when Johnny Nicholls added a fifth from George Lee’s cross. A few minutes later, it was six as Nicholls grabbed his second with Frank Griffin providing the assist.
It turned out to be Cardiff’s second successive 6-1 defeat and it kept Albion a point clear of Wolves at the top of the table.
Allen’s four goals were a reminder of his qualities for the England selectors who had omitted him from the squad to play Hungary the following Wednesday. However, the Baggies centre forward may ultimately have been glad not to be involved in the infamous fixture when the Magic Magyars inspired by Ferenc Puskás beat England 6-3 at Wembley.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
29 Mar 2014 – Premier League
West Brom 3 (Amalfitano, Dorrans, Thievy)
Cardiff City 3 (Mutch, Caulker, Daehli)
7 Jan 2012 – FA Cup 3rd Round
West Brom 4 (Odemwingie, Cox (3))
Cardiff City 2 (Earnshaw, Mason)
Albion’s Record against Cardiff City