Albion’s automatic promotion hopes take a blow as Blades take the points

West Brom 0 Sheffield United 1

Albion’s bid for the top two took a blow at the Hawthorns as promotion rivals, Sheffield United, took the points but, with twelve games to go, it’s not yet terminal.

The Baggies weren’t at their best against the Blades, but I feel they did deserve a point from the game.  Clear cut opportunities, however, were few and far between for Albion, as Chris Wilder’s team packed out the middle of the park and disrupted the Baggies’ attacking plays.

I do feel that there were signs of fatigue amongst the Albion squad.  There were many promising moments when the final pass looked tired and ultimately possession was given away and, in the second half in particular, the Baggies looked laboured and lacking in energy.  A run of seven games in 22 games has taken its toll and United certainly looked to have benefited from not having a game in mid-week.  From now on, the Baggies fixture schedule should be somewhat kinder and, indeed, they will have the advantage on Friday night as Leeds face a trip to QPR on Tuesday evening.

Wilder certainly won the tactical battle against Moore and Jones, and the goal came from a situation that they should have prepared for.  Gibbs had already been the victim of an overload with centre-back, Martin Cranie, overlapping wing-back, Kieron Freeman, and it happened again for the goal.

I assume it was a conscious decision to leave Dwight Gayle up and not track Cranie, with the hope that it increases the opportunities on the break.  There were one or two occasions when that happened, but it was a risk that ultimately did not pay off.

While there is a general feeling that Albion have one of the strongest squads in the division, there is one player who is like no other.  In certain game situations, Hal Robson-Kanu is invaluable for the Baggies, and his absence yesterday was a key reason why they were unable to get back into the game in the second half.  The Welshman’s ability to hold up the ball and bring others into the game is something that no one else in the squad possesses, and Albion were crying out for that in the second half as the Blades tightened up and saw the game out.

I feel I should give a special mention to Mason Holgate.  He was one of those who was a little off the pace.  He worked extremely hard and found himself in some fantastic crossing positions, but his delivery was poor.  He attempted 10 crosses in the match, and just 2 were completed as he hit the first man time and time again.  I’m not highlighting this to criticise him, every player can have a bad day at the office, but he knew he’d had one of those days and did a full lap of the pitch at the end to show his appreciation to the fans for their support.  Coming from a loan player, I thought that was exceptional – he demonstrated his commitment to the cause with his celebrations of the winner at Loftus Road on Tuesday, and this was further evidence that he is a proper Baggie, for the time being at least.

Another loanee, Jefferson Montero, looked bright when he came on.  He had one chance in the dying seconds that was well saved by Henderson and, while he didn’t make the difference on this occasion, he may well do later in the season.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the evening was the injury to Ahmed Hegazi.  He looks to have picked up an Achilles injury which could keep him sidelined for a while and, while Adarabioyo did well when he came on, the Baggies back line always looks stronger with the Egyptian at its heart.

Personally, I feel even though Wilder set up his team every well, United were beatable.  It was still a game of tight margins and, had Albion been anywhere near their best, I feel that they would have taken all three points as they did at Bramall Lane in December.

It’s obviously a bad result, but I don’t think it spells the end of Albion’s automatic promotion hopes.  A victory at Elland Road would certainly help but there will be plenty of twists and turns yet.

Norwich City probably have the easiest run in, but of Albion’s remaining six home games, only Preston and Birmingham are in the top ten while the dangerous-looking away trips after Leeds are at Bristol City and Derby County on the final day.

The Blades have the Steel City derby next weekend and have another local derby with Rotherham.  They also need to travel to Leeds, Birmingham and in-form Preston, and face Bristol City and Nottingham Forest at home.  Leeds, meanwhile, face Albion and Sheffield United in their next two home games, and they still have to travel to Birmingham, Bristol City and Preston.

There are a dozen games to go with still plenty to play for.  This result was a blow, but we go again on Friday night.

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