With hope fading fast for the Baggies, Ole Gunnar Solskjær brings his Manchester United side to the Hawthorns on Sunday looking to narrow the gap to their city rivals at the top of the Premier League table.
Sam Allardyce can take some encouragement from the fact that Albion were unfortunate to lose the reverse fixture in November, albeit that was before he took charge, and from the recent win that Sheffield United managed to record against the Red Devils, but he knows that his team need to perform at their best if they are to take anything from this fixture. United are unbeaten in four matches since that defeat to Sheffield United including a remarkable 9-0 victory over Southampton, but they have been unconvincing in their last two matches, a 3-3 draw with Everton and a 1-0 win over West Ham in the FA Cup.
When Manchester City visited the Hawthorns a few short weeks ago, Albion produced the sort of abject defensive performance that has littered their campaign and were soundly beaten – defeat to United is likely, but any repeat of that display would be unacceptable. That is particularly true given that Allardyce now has his new signings available and a near fully-fit squad.
The one exception is Grady Diangana who hasn’t featured since the defeat to Arsenal at the beginning of January. Big Sam stated that he was back in training but not yet ready for action, but there have been rumours that the former West Ham youngster has fallen out with his head coach.
Allardyce’s starting line up will be interesting. I maintain that his decision to drop Matheus Pereira last weekend was a massive mistake and, I believe, one made to accommodate Ainsley Maitland-Niles in central midfield. As much as Allardyce has been trying to fix problems at the back, it has not worked and he needs to play his most creative player in every match. If that means that AMN is denied a central role, so be it – he’s not our player and his priorities should be secondary to that of the team. With right-back a problem position for Albion, the solution for me is obvious, irrespective of what he has been promised.
One key difference for this match is that Okay Yokuşlu should start the match and, much as it is perhaps unfair on the Celta de Vigo loanee, he needs to be a success if the Baggies are to have any hope of getting out of their current predicament. Many feel that it is already a lost cause, and the chances of escape are certainly slim, but if Okay can help to take the pressure of a shaky defence, maybe Albion can start to turn the corner even if it turns out to be too late. You have to keep a little hope….
When Albion were last battling against relegation, they managed to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, so you can never abandon all hope of a result, but it is the subsequent four matches that will go a long way to determining the Baggies’ ultimate fate this season.