Two wins in ten games in all competitions is hardly promotion form and, while Albion have only conceded seven goals in those games, they have scored just six. The arrival of Daryl Dike on New Year’s Day was seen by many as a pivotal moment in the season. The American striker has already been hailed as a saviour without even kicking a ball for the club. On Saturday, we get to see him in action for the first time and we can only hope that the 21-year-old is not weighed down by the expectation.
Just over a month ago, Valérien Ismaël’s team had gone three games without scoring and faced a tough trip to in-form Coventry City. An excellent first half performance ensured they passed that particular test securing the victory and following that up with a comfortable, albeit narrow, win against Reading. Since then, however, a further four winless games have followed including the cup defeat to Brighton and the Frenchman is once again feeling the pressure. The attendance of just over 8,000 on Saturday, the lowest for an FA Cup match at the Hawthorns for more than a century, may have been impacted by COVID fears and by general apathy for a game when most expected a weakened side against less-than-attractive opposition, but many saw it as a reflection of the general dissatisfaction towards the club at the moment. The signing of Dike has raised hopes in some quarters but many are unconvinced that he will be able to change the fortunes of the side single-handedly.
As it turned out, Ismaël played his strongest possible team for the visit of Brighton and Albion looked to be on course to progress until two quick yellow cards saw Cédric Kipré sent off and the tie turned. The central defender can count himself unfortunate, particularly with the second offence, but a sixth red card in a dozen games for the Baggies highlighted a discipline problem that seems to have developed as the team’s form has dipped.
Kipré will be suspended for the trip to QPR and, with Semi Ajayi at the African Cup of Nations, it leaves Ismaël with just two senior centre backs available, although even Kyle Bartley will face a late fitness test. COVID issues saw Adam Reach and Jake Livermore drop into the back three for the game against Reading last month but, with Alex Mowatt also ruled out through suspension, the midfield options are also limited. Caleb Taylor is an option at the back, although he is yet to feature in a league game for the Baggies but, if Val prefers to put the experience of Livermore in the back line, Taylor Gardner-Hickman could play alongside Jayson Molumby in the middle of the park.
Most attention will be aimed further forward, however, as we all expect Daryl Dike to make his debut, albeit Val has indicated that it will only be from the bench. The American hasn’t played for a few weeks since Orlando City’s defeat in the first round of the MLS Playoffs on 24th November, a game in which he gave Orlando the lead. That was one of seven goals he scored in his last nine appearances in MLS and all Baggies fans will hope he can continue that goalscoring form in an Albion shirt.
There is no doubt that finding the net has been Albion’s principal problem this season. They have had more attempts on target than any other side in the Championship and yet one of the lowest conversion rates. Dike scored nine goals in fourteen starts for Barnsley last season so he has the pedigree at this level, but it is not just his goals that could transform the Baggies’ fortunes. Val-ball has proved divisive amongst the Albion faithful, but there is no doubt that the style works best with a strong number nine who is able to occupy defenders, hold the ball up and bring others into play. There has been no such player available for Ismaël this season, and his tactics have been less effective as a result.
It may not be to the liking of everyone, but Val-ball is most effective when the ball is moved forward quickly – without a front man who can act as a target and hold the ball effectively, Ismaël has been forced to alter his style and play through midfield. I suspect that will change with Dike up top and I think Albion will be much quicker in transition and much more direct in their passing. The games in the coming weeks will, I suspect, be much more like those we saw in the first few weeks of the season than those we have seen of late.
Dike is the man Ismaël wanted and the club pulled out all the stops to get him in on the first day of the window. The young striker may be under pressure but it is his head coach who will take the rap should he not have the desired effect.
QPR represent a tough test for Dike’s debut with the west London side sitting just one place and one point below the Baggies with a game in hand. They scraped past League One Rotherham United in the FA Cup, winning on penalties after Lyndon Dykes came off the bench to net an equaliser after Michael Ihiekwe had given the Millers the lead in extra time. Rangers’ league form has seen them hovering around the play off places for most of the season and they have lost just two of their last ten Championship matches. Those were back-to-back home defeats to Stoke City and AFC Bournemouth that were separated by 22 days thanks to COVID postponements. Since then, they have won away to Bristol City and Birmingham City before their FA Cup clash with Rotherham.
There are few familiar faces in Mark Warburton’s squad including Charlie Austin and Stefan Johansen, while Chris Willock, who may not be that familiar in that Slaven Bilić opted not to give him any first team opportunities in his half season at the Hawthorns, has developed into one of the Championship’s hottest properties this campaign with series of impressive displays scoring six goals in the process.
This is a massive game for the Baggies and, should they lose, they could drop out of the top six for the first time since the opening weekend of the season, albeit that would take a significant goal difference swing with Middlesbrough. Nonetheless, it is a game that Ismaël’s team will desperately want to win to keep in touch with the automatic promotion places while knocking one their playoff rivals.
Two meetings spring to mind when these two clubs come together, each of which holds a special place for one set of supporters.
The first was just the third meeting between the sides, the 1967 League Cup Final. Albion were the holders having won the competition at the first time of asking in a two-legged final against West Ham in 1966, while the ’67 final was the first to be held at Wembley. As QPR were a third division side at the time, the Baggies were clear favourites and led 2-0 at half time. The R’s came back in the second half, however, with the appropriately named Mark Lazarus scoring the winner to secure what remains the west London club’s only major trophy.
The second was somewhat more recent and also resulted in a trophy being secured, this time for Albion. On the final day of the 2007/08 season, Tony Mowbray’s side needed a victory to secure the Championship trophy, and goals from Kim Do-Heon and Chris Brunt saw the Baggies to a 2-0 win. Not a “major” trophy at the time, although the silverware that Jonathan Greening lifted was the same as had been awarded to the winners of the top flight before the Premier League was formed.
The Baggies are unbeaten in their last five meetings with Rangers, winning four and drawing one albeit that was enough to secure promotion on the final day of the 2019/20 season. Their best win at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium, formerly Loftus Road, came on Boxing Day 1968 when a brace from Ian Collard plus goals from Ronnie Rees and Dennis Martin earned a 4-0 victory against Les Allen’s newly promoted side.
QPR’s biggest home win over Albion is 3-1, a result they have achieved twice, most recently in March 2010 in what turned out to be Roberto di Matteo’s team’s final defeat of the season. They bettered that at the Hawthorns in April 2015 with a 4-1 victory that ended a run of five successive defeats for Chris Ramsey’s team, but ultimately failed to spark a run of form to save them from relegation.
|Queen’s Park Rangers||W||L||L||W||W||D|
All competitions; most recent game on the right
24 Sep 2021 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Grant (2))
Queen’s Park Rangers 1 (Gray)
Last meeting at Queen’s Park Rangers
28 Sep 2019 – League Championship
Queen’s Park Rangers 0
West Brom 2 (Ferguson, Pereira)
Albion’s Record against Queen’s Park Rangers
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