West Brom 3 Birmingham City 2
Jimmy Shan made is three wins from three as Albion came from behind twice to win an exciting, and occasionally bruising, local derby against Birmingham City at the Hawthorns.
After a lack lustre first half performance from the Baggies, they looked much more like it after the break and deservedly took all three points. It is likely to mean that Shan will be confirmed as the caretaker manager until the end of the season, possibly with an experienced coach to come in to work alongside him.
He made just one change to the team that started at Griffin Park before the international break, with Jake Livermore coming in for Stefan Johansen. It gave the midfield a very pedestrian feel with Brunt, Morrison and Livermore struggling to impose themselves. Blues’ goal gave them a deserved lead, but it resulted from Chris Brunt losing his man, Gary Gardner, having just been spoken to by referee, David Webb, for getting too close to him.
The only player to come out of the first 45 with any credit was Kyle Edwards, who was both the most dangerous-looking attacking player for the Baggies as well as putting in an impressive defensive display, at one point sprinting across from left wing to right back to make an important intervention.
Dwight Gayle was once again starting on his own up front, albeit with Rodriguez playing a little closer to him in a more central position, and he struggled to make an impact. That changed immediately after the break when he broke his six-game scoring duck getting on the end of a Brunt free kick to guide a header just inside the post to put Albion back on level terms.
I felt that Robson-Kanu needed to come on to offer some control up front, and while it seemed to be a good tactical decision by Shan to replace Morrison with the Welshman, it turned out to have been a forced change with Mozza feeling tightness in his hamstring at half time.
Nonetheless, HRK made a big difference and Albion dominated the second half. It looked like it was only a matter of time before they took the lead, but it was the visitors who were next to score somewhat against the run of play. Hegazi looked to have been fouled on the halfway line but City broke and won a corner. The Egyptian rather naively walked off the pitch to receive treatment and his absence in defending the corner proved crucial as Jutkiewicz rose above Rodriguez to head in Blues’ second goal.
It didn’t take long for what was an enthusiastic Hawthorns crowed to get back behind the team in force, and not long for the team to respond. Conor Townsend, who put in another impressive performance at left back, nutmegged Maxime Colin before being brought down on the edge of the box by Connor Mahoney. It looked a stonewall penalty from my angle, but the TV pictures certainly put that in doubt, but Webb made the decision in Albion’s favour and J-Rod did what he has done with every penalty this season and found the net.
The Baggies definitely had the momentum now but the winning goal came from an unlikely source. I probably would have substituted Jake Livermore at half time after what was an ineffective first half performance, but he connected sweetly as the Blues defence struggled to properly clear their lines after great work from Gayle on the right, and the ball flew into the net. Birmingham ‘keeper, Lee Camp, may feel he should have done better but it was a great strike from Livermore who has developed a habit for scoring important goals of late.
Albion saw out the game relatively comfortably and moved to within four points of the top two ahead of Saturday’s games. They were certainly unconvincing in the first half, with the same old problems of a pedestrian midfield evident once again, but it was a good second half performance and the determination showed by the players to win the game is a sure sign that they are all behind Shan and are still pushing for the top two.
The Baggies players also responded well to what was a physical approach from Garry Monk’s team, perhaps illustrated by Craig Gardner’s wild lunge on Hal Robson-Kanu late on. Referee, Webb, perhaps allowed a little too much from Blues and one or two Albion players sought to impart a little retribution of their own. Jake Livermore was perhaps fortunate that the referee didn’t see his retaliatory kick on Harlee Dean after the Blues man had prevented Gayle from joining a breakaway, particularly given the fact that he already has two red cards to his name this season, while Chris Brunt received a yellow card for an agricultural challenge on Gary Gardner late on.
Shan may have been forced into the Morrison substitution but his decision to bring on Robson-Kanu was the right one. Furthermore, his second half substitution of Edwards for Murphy was also intelligent. Far too frequently, Moore made changes too late but Shan recognised that Edwards’ impact on the game was fading and brought Murphy on for some extra legs. The Newcastle loanee may not have had a huge influence, but he worked hard and did have one crucial defensive intervention late on that a flagging Edwards was unlikely to have been able to make.
It may be a step too far for the Baggies to force themselves back into contention for automatic promotion, but if they can at least continue their recent good form until the end of the season, they should go into the play-offs full of confidence.