Twelve years ago, it was the Battle of the Black Country in the Championship play-off semi-final, this year the Battle of the West Midlands sees Albion take on their nearest rivals from across the Brummie border.
In 2007, the Baggies came out on top as they beat Wolves in both legs, starting with a 3-2 win at Molineux. This time around, recent form makes Aston Villa the favourites to make the final on Bank Holiday Monday, but while Albion may not have impressed too much in recent weeks, they did finish ahead of the Villains and, with a front two that have scored 45 league goals between them this season, they cannot be written off.
While it is, perhaps, understandable that pundits have reacted to Villa’s recent ten-game winning run by making them favourites for promotion via the play-offs, there is also a distinct lack of confidence amongst many Albion fans, despite the fact that the Baggies had the better of the regular league games between the sides.
Furthemore, as impressive as Aston Villa’s form has been in the last two months, the fact remains that they have not beaten any of the top four this season. Their record against the sides that have finished above them in the table this season is P8 W0 D3 L5, including, of course, their last two fixtures of the regular season.
Dean Smith’s side needed that late burst to make the play-offs, having been as low as 10th in the table as recently as late February. They have lost just once since Albion’s 2-0 win at Villa Park on 16th February and that run will certainly provide them with confidence but their winning run ended as soon as they played one of the top four.
Albion, on the other hand, have been virtually been assured of a play-off place for the past few weeks and that has certainly played a part in their performances in recent weeks. Derby County certainly showed more desire in the second half at Pride Park last weekend, as they needed to win the game. It is perhaps understandable that the Albion players were a little less committed with one eye on the play-off games to come.
Jimmy Shan has been rotating his starting line-up over the past few games, which has certainly had an impact on performances and results. Chris Brunt, for example, has been rested from the starting line up in three games since Shan took over, none of which have been won. The Baggies skipper has become a vital part of the side in the run-in, and I’m sure he was rested at Derby to ensure that he will be fit and ready for all three play-off games.
Despite Shan’s rotation, it is easy to discern his preferred starting eleven. As I’ve said before, the defence and forward line have picked themselves since the switch to a 3-5-2 formation, but it has become clear that Shan sees Stefan Johansen and Rekeem Harper as his preferred two alongside Brunt. He has experimented with a 3-4-3/3-6-1 formation at Reading and Derby, and it’s fair to say it did not work on either occasion.
Midfield is the key battleground of this match. Villa’s real strengths lie in their midfield duo of Jack Grealish and John McGinn, and if Albion can keep a level of control over those two, they should win the game. There is an argument that someone should be put on Grealish to keep him quiet, but McGinn can be just as dangerous and I think it would be a mistake to concentrate on one man.
Furthermore, Albion should be concentrating on their own strengths, not those of their opponents. A defensive approach has rarely worked this season, and I feel the Baggies should be looking to get on the front foot without going gung-ho.
There is no doubt that this will be a tough task for Albion, but it is one they are capable of winning should they play to their potential. In recent weeks, they have fell short of that while Villa have arguably been playing above theirs. Nonetheless, Albion have still picked up nearly two points per game since Shan took over – their ability to pick up points when not playing to their best is encouraging, but they will need to reproduce something close to their best if the are to see off their near neighbours.
I feel that options from the bench could be vitally important in this game, and it is bad news that Shan will not be able to call on Hal Robson-Kanu for all of the play-off games. His act of petulance that saw him sent off at Pride Park was utterly stupid; Albion were hoping to get his suspension reduced as it wasn’t a particularly violent offence, but the FA have upheld the three-match ban. For me, his hold-up play does offer something unique within the Albion squad, and his absence from the bench is a blow.
Many fans would like to see Matt Phillips start, but I think he will be used as an impact player from the bench. His lack of fitness this season has been one of the main reasons why Albion were unable to challenge for the top two, but his pace and ability could prove crucial late in games should it be required.
Jacob Murphy is the other obvious attacking option, although he has been somewhat disappointing in his loan spell. Shan will probably prefer him to Jon Leko, however, although I’d expect to see Kyle Edwards on the bench as he can also offer a right wing-back option should that be required as well as the attacking threat he displayed magnificently at Griffin Park.
For me, there is no doubt that Albion are capable of beating Villa over two legs. The players should take confidence in that they finished above Dean Smith’s team, and also beat them at Villa Park just three months ago.
The fans also need to take confidence in that and get behind the team. The 2,000 Baggies faithful at Villa Park will certainly make plenty of noise, but we need to make sure that the Hawthorns is a cauldron of noise on Tuesday evening.
Some fans are disappointed with the season so far, I am not. Yes, it could have been better, but a top six finish was always the target for me. The leadership from the board room has left much to be desired since the sacking of Darren Moore, but Jimmy Shan has stepped up and secured a play-off spot. Now is the time to get united behind the club for one final push to get back to the Premier League.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
16 Feb 2019 – League Championship
Aston Villa 0
West Brom 2 (Robson-Kanu, Rodriguez)
Albion’s Record against Aston Villa