As we enter a new year and a new decade, the long-awaited meeting between the Championship’s top two should kick off 2020 with a bang. For Baggies fans, the hope is that the new year will bring a new unbeaten run starting with a return to the top of the league by beating Leeds United.
Both sides have experienced a dip in form of late, although Leeds’ 95th minute winner at St Andrew’s on Sunday saw them regain top spot as Albion suffered their first home defeat of the season.
The last few weeks have not been good for the Baggies as they have struggled to rediscover the form that saw them record six straight victories in a fourteen match unbeaten run since their defeat at Elland Road at the beginning of October.
The Middlesbrough result has been coming given performances in recent weeks, although there were one or two moments that could have gone Albion’s way and see them rescue a point. A defeat may, in the end, be the shock that the players need to spark them into life. Maybe one or two did show some “unintentional complacency” as Bilić described it in his post-match interview, and perhaps had an eye on the New Year’s Day game.
Injuries and Bilić’s attempt to spread the workload during a hectic festive season have not helped to keep continuity in the team, but there has been a collective drop in form from virtually every player in the squad. Albion haven’t been poor, and managed to stay unbeaten until Sunday, but they have lacked the fluidity and intensity that had become a hallmark of the side through October and November.
It is hoped that Diangana and Gibbs will be fit to face Leeds on Wednesday which would both be very welcome boosts to the side. Matheus Pereira has not looked as effective without the trickery of Diangana alongside him, while Gibbs offers more of an attacking threat from left back than either Townsend or Ferguson.
The futures of Diangana and Ferguson remain unclear, of course, with the former potentially about to be recalled by West Ham and the latter seemingly unwilling to commit his future to the Hawthorns. Luke Dowling has said that he is seeking to get clarity on both situations as soon as possible, but both could drag on with the Hammers able to exercise the recall option on Diangana in the first two weeks of January.
The game itself should be an entertaining encounter. At Elland Road, Albion put in what was, at the time, one of their best performances of the season and they certainly did not deserve to be beaten. They will need an equally impressive performance if they are to have a chance of taking all three points on Wednesday.
Having said that, United have shown fallibility in recent weeks. After conceding just two goals in ten matches between mid October and mid December, they have let in ten goals in the last four games, including four at Birmingham on Sunday, albeit that they won the game 5-4. In fact, those four games have doubled Leeds’ “Goals Against” column for the season!
Whether that is a blip or a sign of something more fundamental remains to be seen, but it surely must be good news for the Baggies who are, of course, the division’s top scorers.
One other positive for Albion is the continued absence of Pablo Hernández, perhaps Leeds’ most creative player. However, Ezgjan Alioski, who seems to have come into the starting line up as a result, is not a bad “replacement” by any means as he showed with his brace at St Andrew’s. It’s difficult to identify him as a direct replacement for Hernández as he’s ostensibly a left back, but Bielsa’s team is so fluid in formation that both Dallas, who was playing left back in the match that Hernández was injured, and Klich have played in the Spaniard’s normal number ten position since his absence. I certainly don’t envy Bilić and his staff to try to understand how to counter a Bielsa team!
While this is by no means a title decider or a must win game for either team, a victory for either one will be a massive boost, while defeat will start the nervous looks over the shoulder to see if one of the chasing pack can put together a run that could threaten the top two’s dominance so far.
6th December 1986 saw a memorable encounter between Albion and Leeds at the Hawthorns, although for all the wrong reasons. On the turbulent terraces of the 1970s and 1980s, Leeds United’s fans had a reputation for being amongst the less desirable and in the Black Country on that December day, they seemed hell bent on maintaining that reputation.
It was the Whites’ first visit to the Hawthorns since the fateful day in May 1982 when a 2-0 defeat saw them relegated to the second division and manager, Billy Bremner, certainly got his side riled up for the encounter.
The visitors were determined to make the game a physical encounter which kept referee, David Scott, very busy. John Sheridan was the first in the book for a cynical challenge on Robert Hopkins, while Brendan Ormsby followed soon after following a two-footed challenge on Bobby Williamson that would have been a clear red card in today’s football.
Clive Whitehead put the hosts ahead five minutes before the break with a delightful goal turning three Leeds defenders inside out, but the referee was soon at the centre of the action once again.
Just before half time, Ian Snodin lunged at Barry Cowdrill from about four yards away and left the Baggies left back in a heap on the floor. Carlton Palmer took exception to the challenge and soon there was a mass brawl with 17 players involved. Like Ormsby’s, the tackle would have been a red card today, but in the end, both Snodin and Palmer were dismissed for the brawl.
Shortly after the break, John Stiles, son of then Albion coach and England World Cup winner, Nobby, committed a reckless tackle on Colin Anderson and was also dismissed by referee, Scott, in what was perhaps a harsh decision for the time.
Whitehead scored his second goal a few minutes later to end the game as a contest, while Garth Crooks made it 3-0 with nine minutes to go.
The visiting supporters decided to show their displeasure by setting fire to a shed behind the Smethwick End as they left the stadium, with fire crews only just able to prevent it spreading to a building housing the floodlight control equipment.
Leeds United were a club in crisis that day, and it’s hard to believe that less than six years later, they would be winning the final First Division title before the formation of the Premier League.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
1 Oct 2019 – League Championship
Leeds United 1 (Bartley (o.g.))
West Brom 0
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
10 Nov 2018 – League Championship
West Brom 4 (Robson-Kanu, Phillips, Barnes, Gayle)
Leeds United 1 (Hernández)
Albion’s Record against Leeds United