A close encounter of the play-off kind

West Bromwich Albion 0 Southampton 0

Albion and Southampton played out a largely cagey first leg at a sun-kissed Hawthorns to set up a decisive second leg on the south coast on Friday evening to determine who will play at Wembley for a place in the Premier League. The Saints will be favourites by virtue of home advantage but, based on Sunday’s close encounter, there is very little to choose between the teams and the Baggies have every chance of progressing.

Personally, I would have taken a draw before the game as I feel it gives Albion a great chance – the pressure will all be on Southampton on Friday night and, given how well Coberán’s team performed at St Mary’s earlier this season, they could easily come away with the victory that will take them to Wembley.

The atmosphere at the Shrine on Sunday was superb – maybe not as good as for the last play-off game at the Hawthorns against Aston Villa, but not too far behind. The fans sang loud and proud throughout and I’m sure that the 2,000 of us who will be in the away end on Friday will do their very best to out-sing the home fans.

The noise spurred Albion to a lively start and they dominated the opening fifteen minutes of the game but Southampton were able to hold out against the onslaught and the game settled into a very even contest. Both sides had a few good chances with Albion’s best falling to Grady Diangana, one in each half, but each time he was denied by the Saints’ ‘keeper, Alex McCarthy.

Kyle Walker-Peters flashed one just wide for the visitors in the first half while Alex Palmer showed why he won the Championship Golden Glove with an excellent instinctive save with his leg after Ross Stewart’s shot was deflected by Kyle Bartley.

I did feel that there was an element of caution from both sides with both wary of their opponents’ ability to break quickly, and I do feel that the conditions played a part in as much as neither side was able to keep up a high press for the full ninety minutes. It was hot enough in the shade of the stands, so it must have been stifling down on the pitch.

When Albion did press, they did it well and the Saints defence were frequently forced into hurried clearances or had passes intercepted with a late chance for Conor Townsend the closest the Baggies came to capitalising more directly. Russell Martin’s team employed similar tactics with similar results, albeit I would suggest that Albion were troubled less often. However, throughout the game I felt that a goal was most likely to come from either team winning the ball high up the field and that feeling is likely to continue on Friday evening.

The game itself confirmed what I felt beforehand, that despite the fact that the Saints had won both games this season and finished some twelve points ahead of Albion over the campaign, the two teams are evenly matched. Russell Martin could not have complained too much had his side be going into Friday’s match with a deficit, although I’m sure he would have done, and the second leg is likely to be another tight affair.

It’s still all to play for.

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