While many will feel that Albion’s hopes of survival are already lost, even the most optimistic will feel that Sunday’s match with Newcastle United is a must-win fixture if Sam Allardyce’s team are to have any chance of retaining their Premier League status.
Steve Bruce’s side have endured a poor run of form of late and have slipped from a relatively comfortable mid-table position before Christmas to the brink of the bottom three with a run of nine points from the fifteen games since the clubs last met on 12th December. Not that Albion have fared much better in the same period – the Baggies have picked up just eleven points since the Magpies’ 2-1 win at St James’s Park.
Newcastle’s recent wins over Everton and Southampton have kept them clear of the bottom three and they currently sit three points above 18th-placed Fulham, nine ahead of Albion, with a game in hand. However, recent injuries to Miguel Almirón and Allan Saint-Maximin to add to the loss of Callum Wilson has left the Toon with a much reduced attacking threat and there will be genuine concerns that they will be dragged into the mire. They will be more concerned by Fulham than the Baggies, but defeat at the Hawthorns will certainly add to their worries.
In Wilson and Almirón, Steve Bruce will be without two players who have scored more than half of his team’s Premier League goals this season and it was the Paraguayan who scored two of Newcastle’s goals on their last visit to the Hawthorns for the FA Cup tie just over twelve months ago, the last time there were fans at the stadium.
Those absences could well see two former Baggies in action for the visitors. Dwight Gayle and Jacob Murphy came off the bench to combine for the Magpies’ winner when the two sides met in December and Albion fans will no doubt be fearing a similar impact on Sunday. That was Gayle’s only goal this season in what was his first appearance – he has started just once with Bruce preferring Joelinton as his lone striker when Wilson has been absent. Murphy has been used more often with eleven starts in all competitions and his only goal this season came in the Black Country at Molineux in October.
For the Baggies, Allardyce’s principal concern will be whether his team can reproduce the same levels of energy, commitment and concentration that has been present in recent games given the reduced time between games. The players left the pitch after the Everton defeat just 64 hours before Sunday’s noon kick off, while their opponents will have had seven full days to rest and prepare since their draw with Wolves last Saturday evening.
Big Sam did hint that he might rest players against Everton, but the starting line-up was unchanged and I would be surprised to see too many changes for Sunday’s game. I would expect to see Robert Snodgrass back in the side in place of Matt Phillips, while Lee Peltier could be given another shot at right back with Darnell Furlong having made a few defensive errors against Everton. Having said that, Albion’s need to win may see Furlong retain his place given his greater attacking threat.
Semi Ajayi could come in for Dara O’Shea, but any other changes would undoubtedly weaken the side and, unless the sports science experts see any areas for concern, I expect Allardyce to keep things pretty much the same.
For me, this is the first real must-win game for Albion. The Baggies need to catch Newcastle if they are to get out of this predicament and reducing that gap to six points is an absolute necessity. A win makes the chances of survival greater, although they will remain slim – anything else will pretty much rule those chances out. The midweek game against Everton make it a tougher task, but the key players that Steve Bruce’s team will be without mean that they should have a great chance of taking all three points.
If you enjoy reading my site, maybe you’ll enjoy listening to me speak – I am a guest on Bazza T’s NUFC YouTube preview show at 8.15pm on Saturday evening discussing the game, so why not tune in?