Charlie Austin’s late double proved to be the difference between the sides at St Andrew’s as Albion earned all three points in what was a tough physical battle in difficult conditions.
As is often the case, form is irrelevant in local derbies, and Birmingham City certainly raised their game. They were up for the battle, seemingly more so than the Baggies, and for much of the first half dominated the midfield and put the visitors under pressure, particularly from set pieces.
The hosts also adapted better to the blustery conditions and seemed able to judge the flight of the ball much better, and were winning header after header as the Albion back line looked uncharacteristically shaky.
Jutkiewicz and Giménez were a constant menace, strong enough to hold off their markers and control the long balls up to them time and again. And once Blues were in and around the Albion box, they were able to win corners and free kicks to test the Baggies defence time and again.
Both City’s goals came from set pieces, and it’s easy to point to deficiencies in the way Albion defended each one, although I think that the ball in by Maxime Colin for the opener was superb. Harlee Dean gave Townsend a little nudge before heading in Birmingham’s second goal, but he was always struggling in the air. I’m not sure if Johnstone was slightly unsighted, but it was unusual for him to be beaten by a header from such distance.
In between times, Grady Diangana poked in an equaliser before going off with a hamstring injury, but City also created a number of other chances that, perhaps, should have been converted. Before the break, Albion perhaps one other opportunity when Phillips won the ball in the City half but played a poor pass to Diangana with the Baggies seemingly well placed to take an undeserved lead.
Until Bilić made his first substitution with an hour gone, Albion looked unable to find a way back into the game. Sawyers and Livermore were finding it difficult to find space as the Blues midfield were sharp into the tackle at every occasion and showing no signs of slowing down. Hal Robson-Kanu was working hard, but often crowded out, while Pereira was not having one of his better games.
The decision to replace Townsend with Furlong was an easy one. The young left back was not having his best game, and Furlong certainly offers more in attack and, with Phillips also struggling to impact the game, Albion needed an outlet on the right wing.
The masterstroke, however, was to bring on Austin for Phillips and effectively switch to a 3-5-2 formation with Furlong and Edwards as wing-backs.
With his first touch, Bostin’ Austin received the ball from Livermore, after some great work by Pereira, controlled and turned in a single movement, and with his second, he fired an unstoppable shot inside Trueman’s right hand post to send the away end into raptures.
That goal moved him level with Phillips as the Baggies’ top goalscorer this season, and eight minutes later he was top on his own. Furlong, who was marauding down the right wing, put across the perfect cross. Austin’s clever movement allowed him to lose is marker and he had what, for him, was the simple tasking of nodding the ball into the net.
It was the twelfth goal that have been scored by Albion substitutes this season as Slaven Bilić once again proved that he is a master at changing the game from the sidelines.
Only once ahead did Albion look like a top-of-the-table side. For the remainder of the game, they controlled possession much better and, bar one great chance for Bela immediately after the goal, comfortably saw the game out.
Once again, I thought the referee was poor. The challenge by Šunjić on Pereira in the centre circle was surely deserving of a red card, but Darren England got his yellow card out far too quickly and was then unable to change his mind. Later on, Pereira was again the victim of a cynical challenge – he produced an outrageous piece of skill to pluck the ball out of the air, something that Harlee Dean took exception to and deliberately fouled at the Brazilian, and offence that was punished by nothing more than a free kick. On another occasion, Ferguson ran down the left wing, was fouled on at least two occasions before finally going down under what was, perhaps, a less obvious foul challenge, only for England to ignore the earlier offences and wave play on. It wasn’t all against Albion, however, as there were a few dubious decisions that benefited the visitors, including one when Hal Robson-Kanu engineered contact and when down on the edge of the Birmingham City box. It’s a constant theme in the Championship, and the FA and EFL need to find some way of raising standards, perhaps by introducing professionalism for referees further down the leagues – surely there is enough money in the game?
As for Albion, after reaching the peak of performance in the defeat of Swansea City, they have dropped off in the subsequent two games but they have remained unbeaten and managed to secure a vital derby win. Meanwhile, Leeds United threw away a three goal lead and the teams in the play-off positions continue to be inconsistent which means that the Baggies are now two points clear at the top and, more importantly, twelve points clear of third place.
Starting on Saturday with another test against fourth-placed Brentford, the Baggies face four games in twelve days, three of which are at the Hawthorns, culminating in the top-of-the-table clash with Leeds United on New Year’s Day.
It’s often a crucial period and, if Albion are similarly placed when they take a break from league football in three weeks’ time, confidence in their ability to win automatic promotion will be extremely high.