West Brom 1 Cardiff City 1
The headlines from Sunday’s frustrating draw with a brutal Cardiff City side may be centred around the performance of referee Thomas Bramall and the three red cards, but the game as a whole was a familiar story for Albion in recent weeks and further highlighted why the man who was introduced at half time, new signing Darryl Dike, will need to be a success if they are to challenge for automatic promotion this season.
As a former referee myself, I try not to criticise referees too harshly as I know what a difficult job it is. However, Bramall had something of a nightmare of an afternoon. His first mistake was in allowing the brutal physicality of the Cardiff side to go unpunished early which meant that the game became more and more physical as time went on, with players on both sides becoming frustrated that fouls were going unpunished. That leniency may have indirectly led to Alex Mowatt’s rash challenge. Having seen the replays, I still feel that it was a tad harsh to lead to a red card, as I did at the time.
The failure to give a penalty for the barge on Grady Diangana was probably in keeping with the challenges that Bramall was allowing – it should have been a foul but many such challenges had gone unpunished earlier in the match. However, the grappling and tugging on Townsend in the dying seconds was such a clear penalty that I still remain incredulous at his decision to ignore it – even Cardiff boss, Steve Morison, described it as a “stonewall penalty”. Looking deeper, was he trying to atone for the fact that Callum Robinson was undoubtedly offside for Albion’s equaliser, was it that he was about to blow for full time and bottled such a match-changing decision, or did he just not think it was a foul? I cannot believe it was the latter, but his decision was directly responsible for the melee that resulted in red cards for Sam Johnstone and Aiden Flint.
As much as the referee’s performance was poor, both players should have controlled themselves better and I would be surprised if any appeal against the red cards would be successful. I, therefore, expect Ismaël will need to do without both Johnstone and Mowatt for three games.
Away from the controversial moments, the game was a familiar tale of frustration for Albion. The first half was as poor a performance as I have seen from Albion this season, which was at least partly down to the decision to play both Gardner-Hickman and Fellows. As popular as their selections may have been, and I myself was pleased to see them in the eleven, it was, in hindsight, a mistake to start them in a match such as this. Cardiff’s players were both overtly physical and adept in the “dark arts” in buying free kicks from a weak referee. Fellows was certainly outmuscled far too often and I wonder if more experienced players may have fared better in this particular match. It will have been a valuable lesson for both and hopefully not damaging to their confidence.
The defending for the City opener was uncharacteristically poor, but perhaps in keeping with that first half when Albion conceded far too many set pieces. Whether it was Big Val’s words or Big Darryl’s reception at half time, the hosts were much improved after the break and equalised within a few minutes of the restart. Robinson was clearly offside but the assistant failed to raise his flag and the Baggies frontman finished superbly for his fifth goal of the season.
The Baggies dominated from that point on, even after Mowatt’s dismissal, but couldn’t find a winner as has been the case on far too many occasions this season. Their thirteen attempts was lower than in recent games but they still created more than enough chances to have won the game, even without the late penalty that they should have been awarded.
Going forward, however, Albion have a new weapon in their armoury and it needs to be a decisive one if they are to drag themselves back into the race for automatic promotion. Val-ball has plenty of critics amongst Baggies fans and some are calling for Ismaël to be sacked, but with a long term contract and significant backing with the signing of Dike, it is clear to me that Lai is committed to the project. It has become obvious that a striker such as Dike is essential for Val-ball to succeed, and it was a clear mistake that such a player was not signed in the summer – perhaps Ismaël was persuaded to give Zohore a go with Hugill as an alternative, but it was clear early on that neither was up to the task.
Now the Frenchman has his man and two weeks to integrate him into the side ahead of the next league game. I suspect next week’s cup game with Brighton will be treated as little more than an inconvenience, much as I would like to see Albion field a strong side. Two of their best promotion campaigns have been achieved alongside a cup run, in 2002 and 2008, and I have always believed that winning becomes a habit, but I would be surprised if Ismaël fields too many of his first team.
Having said that, he did play strong sides in the cup for Barnsley last season, but the Tykes were clear of relegation danger by then and he had a smaller squad to choose from. They got through to the Fifth Round where they were narrowly beaten by Chelsea and they went on a run of seven successive wins after that cup exit, so it did them little harm.
However, it is the trip to QPR on 15th January that all attention is turning towards with the hope that it will be the start of something special.