The last fifteen minutes of Saturday’s match at Villa Park may have deflated the Baggies faithful, but rest assured that this tie is far from over. There are still plenty of reasons for Albion fans to be hopeful.
Firstly, let’s look at the history. Twenty-six years ago, the Baggies escaped from the Vetch Field in Swansea with a 2-1 defeat after a match that they easily could have lost by more. An Andy McFarlane own goal gave Albion hope and, in what was the best Hawthorns atmosphere I’ve ever experienced, Ossie Ardiles’ team triumphed with a 2-0 victory in an incident-packed match in which both sides had a man sent off.
This time around, the result from the first leg is the same but Albion should feel much more confident following their display at Villa Park and I’m sure the Hawthorns crowd will be looking to recreate that atmosphere in what is the biggest game at the Shrine for many years.
One player who was involved that night has already reached Wembley in this season’s play-offs – Tranmere Rovers boss, Micky Mellon, was the Albion player sent off that night so he never got to play on the hallowed turf. This season, however, he will get to lead the Whites out in the League Two Play-Off Final having seen off Forest Green Rovers on Monday evening.
Secondly, rather than concern ourselves with the man that won’t be playing in the second leg, consider those that will. There is no other side in the Championship who could lose their top scorer for such an important game, but still have a striker who has scored more than 20 goals raring to go. Jay Rodriguez may not be as much of a fans’ favourite as the absent Dwight Gayle, but his contribution this season has been every bit as important as that of the Newcastle loanee, and he will be the main man for the Baggies on Tuesday evening as they look to overturn the one goal deficit.
J-Rod has has little opportunity to play through the middle this season with many of his appearances being out wide, or as a foil for Gayle. He came close to adding to his tally on Saturday, only to be denied by a fantastic save from Jed Steer, and he already has two goals against Villa this season even if one of them was somewhat unorthodox!
On Monday, it was reported that Craig Dawson, Stefan Johansen and Matt Phillips, the three players that were substituted on Saturday, should be fit for Tuesday’s evening’s game which means that the starting line up is likely to be similar to that seen at Villa Park. Tactially, however, Shan will need to make changes. It was very much a containing job for the away leg, superbly executed until that final fifteen minutes, but Albion now need goals and he is likely to take a much more positive approach.
The choice on who to play alongside Rodriguez or, indeed, whether to stick to 3-5-2 or switch formation, is the biggest tactical dilemma facing Shan and his coaching staff. Three central defenders has served the caretaker boss well, but could the need for goals cause him to switch to a back four, maybe with two midfielders sitting a bit deeper, Brunt and Field, perhaps? That would leave space for three more attacking players to work with J-Rod, say Phillips with Murphy and Harper, or Edwards and Johansen? There are a number of possibilities.
I suspect that Shan will stick with the formation that has seen him maintain a 100% home record, with the players used to that way of playing. The main issue is that there isn’t a natural partner for Rodriguez without Gayle in the side – Phillips has played up front for Scotland, and Kyle Edwards is ostensibly a forward even though we haven’t seen him play as a striker for the first team. I mentioned in my report on Saturday that Albion have two young promising strikers in the shape of Rayhaan Tulloch and Morgan Rogers – while I don’t expect either to start the game, could we see one of them on the bench. Having said that, given that Jefferson Montero was one of the 18 on Saturday having been more-or-less ignored by Shan up to then, perhaps it is wishful thinking!
Whatever the starting line up, one thing Albion need to do is start much better than they have done at the Hawthorns in recent weeks. Whether it was down to the knowledge that a play-off spot was pretty much guaranteed for a while, I’m not sure, but in each of the last two home games, the first half performance was not of the required standard. I’m sure the players will be far more switched on and ready for the task at hand come Tuesday evening.
Due to the situation in the tie, the first goal is massively important. It took only ten minutes for Andy Hunt to put Albion ahead against Swansea in 1993, and only another ten before Ian Hamilton scored the second. There was plenty more drama after that, but the momentum was there from the first minute and the atmosphere generated by the fans that night was hugely significant. We need to create that again.
As for our opponents, as I suspected, Jack Grealish will face no disciplinary action despite going down under minimal, if any, contact to win a penalty, so they will be at full strength. Perhaps the one question will be whether Smith opts to start with the more defensive Glenn Whelan, as he did on Saturday, or play the man who changed the game, Conor Hourihane, from the start.
Villa are unlikely to go too defensive as it’s not the way that Dean Smith likes to play. Albion need goals, but there is no need for them to go too gung-ho – a single goal will put them back in the tie. I do think it will be an open game, however, and it could be a real cracker for the neutral.
The fans have a huge part to play. Albion managed to quieten the Villa Park crowd on Saturday but, after Hourihane’s equaliser, the stadium was rocking and I’m sure that had an impact in the second goal. It does make a difference, and we fans need to ensure that we provide the best possible atmosphere for the players to do what is required.
It will be tough, it will be tight, it will be tense. The Baggies can do it, and we can all help.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
11 May 2019 – League Championship Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg
Aston Villa 2 (Hourihane, Abraham (pen))
West Brom 1 (Gayle)
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
7 Dec 2018 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Gayle, Rodriguez)
Aston Villa 2 (El Ghazi (2))
16 Feb 2019 – League Championship
Aston Villa 0
West Brom 2 (Robson-Kanu, Rodriguez)
Last win at the Hawthorns
13 Dec 2014 – Premier League
West Brom 1 (Gardner)
Aston Villa 0
Albion’s Record against Aston Villa