The much anticipated restart of the Championship is almost upon us and, after 105 days without competitive football, Slaven Bilić’s team return to action on Saturday at the Hawthorns against Birmingham City.
With fans forced to watch the game from home, I’m sure there’ll be a few light fittings in danger as Baggies fans will hopefully be boinging in their living rooms.
Bilić has likened the remaining nine games to an international tournament with games coming thick and fast over the next few weeks and his experience as a national team coach may prove to be invaluable. It must surely have helped during the lockdown given that, as an international boss, there are often long periods without face-to-face contact with your players and keeping some sort of team spirit in such circumstances can be trying.
A three-week preparation period is also similar to an international tournament and Bilić will have known the best way to prepare his side in such a short space of time, but one question on every Baggies fan’s lips is what the starting line-up will be on Saturday.
When Pereira and Diangana were fit in the autumn, Bilić favoured the 4-2-3-1 formation with the Brazilian operating centrally between Diangana and Phillips out wide. It was certainly successful with the 5-1 demolition of Swansea City the obvious highlight.
After the January blip, it was with a 4-3-3 formation that the Baggies rediscovered their form with Krovinović joining up with Sawyers and Livermore in midfield, Pereira moving out right and loan signing, Callum Robinson on the left.
Let’s also not forget that for the last half an hour at St Andrew’s in December, Albion played in a 3-5-2 formation that was ultimately decisive in winning all three points.
Obviously, Bilić and his coaching staff will have been considering this over the last few weeks and, with a near-enough fully-fit squad to choose from, the choices are endless.
Diangana and Pereira evidently developed a real understanding in the autumn which probably relied on the Brazilian operating more centrally. However, Krov has been excellent since the turn of the year and he is definitely most effective in a central position. And then there is Callum Robinson who has made a real impact since joining on loan. Add Phillips, Grosicki and Edwards into that mix and you see that Bilić has a choice that would undoubtedly be the envy of virtually every other manager in the Championship.
All the players mentioned so far will play around a central striker with Hal Robson-Kanu in pole position for that slot ahead of the lockdown. Charlie Austin has been very effective from the bench with six of his nine goals this season scored as a substitute while Kenneth Zohore found opportunities limited having only started one league game since August.
The remainder of the side has been fairly settled this year, although the return of Kieran Gibbs to fitness will obviously give Bilić a decision to make, one that may not be as straightforward as it might once have been given Townsend’s performances while Gibbs has been out. At right back, Dara O’Shea has been a regular since the turn of the year and, while Bilić has been loathe to play Darnell Furlong from the start not wishing to have two attacking full backs, could Lee Peltier have forced his way into contention during the break?
Semi Ajayi has started 35 of Albion’s 37 Championship games this season and would seem assured of his place, but Ahmed Hegazi initially displaced Kyle Bartley before suffering an injury in the defeat to Wigan Athletic. Either one could partner the Nigerian in the heart of the defence.
If fit, it’s hard to look beyond Sawyers and Livermore in the middle of the park, two of the most consistent performers for the Baggies this season. It would be great to see Brunty play a part in the run in of his final season, but I can’t see him starting a game.
Of course, while the starting line-up is anticipated, the Baggies boss has been able to change games seemingly at will from the bench, and the new rules which allow up to five substitutions will give him even more scope to work miracles should they be required. Albion’s squad strength also means that a substitution will rarely produce a drop in quality!
Pep Clotet will be well aware of Bilić’s ability to change a game having suffered at his hands at St Andrew’s in December when the introduction of Charlie Austin and Darnell Furlong turned the game on its head.
His motivation may not be 100% in the knowledge that he will be leaving the club at the end of the season. That may also affect his players, and it is a strange call by the club to announce it ahead of the restart. The threat of a points deduction has been removed following the announcement last week, but, at eight points above the drop, they are not quite safe yet and a few bad results at the start of this run in could leave them looking nervously at the bottom three.
Ordinarily, this would be a hard-fought local derby, albeit a second-level one for both clubs, but without the fans in the stadium, it will feel anything very different. I think that the lack of fans will affect Blues more as their vociferous away support would normally help to raise their game – Albion’s quality should have a much better chance of showing through.
One thing that could affect the game is the lunchtime kick off. With third-placed Fulham hosting fourth-placed Brentford, at least one of the sides chasing the Baggies will drop points. Should Fulham win, that will move them to within three points of Albion putting the pressure right back on Slav’s boys. A win for Brentford would give the Baggies the chance to move nine points clear of third, but also give the Bees a lift ahead of their match against Albion next Friday.
Personally, I think Albion will put the pressure on themselves to get the three points anyway. They will look to sew up promotion as soon as possible before turning their attention to securing another Championship league title. Victory on Saturday will, of course, move them to the top of the table with Leeds United not playing until Sunday – it could be the first blow in what could be a tit-for-tat battle over the coming weeks with the top two not playing at the same time in any of their next seven fixtures.
While we are all disappointed not to be able to attend games, there are plenty of things to look forward to as football returns. The Baggies are well placed to make 2020 memorable for something other than COVID-19, and Saturday afternoon brings a long-awaited chance to take another step towards the Premier League.
This weekend will see the 120th league meeting between Albion and Birmingham City and the Baggies have the better record having recorded 51 league victories to Blues’ 34.
Albion also have the edge in recent years having won five of the last six meetings between the teams in all competitions. At the Hawthorns, the Baggies have lost just one of the last eight encounters.
That run includes what was a vital encounter 15 years ago when Albion were battling against relegation from the Premier League. The first meeting between the sides that season was undoubtedly one of the low points of the Baggies campaign when they put in an abject performance at St Andrew’s and were beaten 4-0 by Steve Bruce’s Blues.
That was the sixth match of Bryan Robson’s tenure at the Hawthorns, and five of them had ended in defeat – it left Albion bottom of the table at Christmas, a position from which no Premier League side had ever escaped relegation.
By the time City visited the Hawthorns in March, things weren’t much brighter. Robson’s first league victory had been secured in January when Manchester City were beaten at the Hawthorns (pre-Sheikh Mansour!), but February had been frustrating as Palace grabbed a late equaliser at the Hawthorns, and Norwich a late winner at Carrow Road.
As Sunday 6th March 2005 dawned, Albion were still bottom, two points behind Norwich in 19th but still eight points adrift of 17th-placed Crystal Palace albeit with two games in hand.
It was a massive game for the Baggies, and they started well with former Blues striker, Geoff Horsfield, setting up January loan signing, Kevin Campbell, in the first half only for Jamie Clapham to clear the ball off the line. Another loan signing, Kieran Richardson, also went close when his shot from 20 yards grazed the post.
Ten minutes into the second half came one of the iconic moments of that season. Martin Albrechtsen slightly overhit a ball into the right hand channel for Zoltán Gera, but the Hungarian chased the ball down, stopped it on the line with a backheel before recovering to win the corner off Stand Lazaridis. Richardson swung in the resulting corner and Clement powered the header off the ground into the roof of the net to give Albion a precious lead.
Ten minutes later, Neil Clement launched a ball forward for Horsfield who managed to win the ball from Kenny Cunningham and feed Jonathan Greening. Jonno swung one of his trademark curling crosses from the left side and Kevin Campbell forced the ball home at the back post to make it 2-0.
Albion held out for the three points which moved them off the bottom of the table for the first time since November. Somehow, just over two months later, they were celebrating achieving a remarkable Great Escape.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
14 Dec 2019 – League Championship
Birmingham City 2 (Jutkiewicz, Dean)
West Brom 3 (Diangana, Austin (2))
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
29 Mar 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 3 (Gayle, Rodriguez (pen), Livermore)
Birmingham City 2 (G. Gardner, Jutkiewicz)
Albion’s Record against Birmingham City