West Ham United 0 West Brom 1
Slaven Bilić returned to the London Stadium on Saturday and guided his new team to a victory over his former one that was more comfortable than the 1-0 scoreline would suggest. It is the fourth time in six seasons that Albion have reached the FA Cup Fifth Round.
Despite making eight changes to Moyes’ four, the Championship side were superior throughout and should have won by more goals. Filip Krovinović was Albion’s driving force in midfield in a man-of-the-match performance, ably supported by Kyle Edwards on the left wing with Brunt, Barry and Hegazi all putting in excellent displays.
In truth, however, the visitors didn’t have to work that hard for their victory as West Ham were very poor. There was a catalogue of errors from the hosts, particularly in the first half, with Fabián Balbuena guilty of several inexcusable misplaced passes that were no where near finding their target, not that it was obvious what their target was!
They were a little better after half time when David Moyes made a triple substitution, with Mark Noble at least providing some energy in the middle of the park. However, they still failed to have an effort on target until the 80th minute and only once did they properly test Jonathan Bond. I would be very worried about relegation if I was a Hammers fan.
It was Noble who had the the hosts’ best chance in the dying stages when he fired over from inside the box, but the game should have been over by then. Charlie Austin had three good chances with headers, two of which missed the target while the third was easily saved by Darren Randolph.
The winning goal was scored in the ninth minute by a player I didn’t expect to be on the field. Conor Townsend has played at least 45 minutes in eight of the Baggies last ten fixtures and endured a difficult evening against Stoke City on Monday evening. I had expected Bilić to give him a rest, although assuming Nathan Ferguson was still not fit, and Brunt playing in the middle of the park, I guess there were limited options at left back. The 26-year-old repaid his boss’s faith with an excellent display that was capped off by the goal, his first for Albion, a crisp strike into the far corner from the edge of the box.
I had half-expected a change in formation for this match, but the 4-2-3-1 was very much in evidence with the pair at the base of midfield performing well despite their combined age of 73! Chris Brunt was the man always looking for the ball from the centre backs, seeking those forward passes to get Albion moving in the right direction while Gareth Barry was the shield, his years of experience making up for his ageing legs. Those two experienced heads never looked like being bettered by the Hammers’ central two, Rice and Sánchez, and even when a similarly experienced Mark Noble came on, Albion’s veterans held the edge.
It was Krovinović who really stood out, however, in what was his best performance in an Albion shirt. We all knew he was a very good footballer, but for the first time he really took control of the game and drove forward at every opportunity. In previous displays, he had often been guilty of taking the extra touch far too often, and not moving the ball quick enough, but at the London Stadium, he was far more dynamic. It was a performance that was well timed given that Bilić will look to his countryman to occupy the number ten position for the next two games as Matheus Pereira serves the remainder of his suspension.
At the back, Hegazi put in another excellent performance and Dara O’Shea celebrated his new contract with another impressive display in an unfamiliar right back role.
The only negative of the day for Albion was the red card for Semi Ajayi. He was perhaps a little unfortunate with the first card, but the second was well deserved and it left the Baggies with ten men for the last 18 minutes of the match. It also makes Bilić’s mind up for the centre back pairing for Tuesday evening as the Nigerian international will be unavailable.
Had it not been for the visitors opting a more cautious approach, you barely would not have noticed that West Ham had an extra player as the Baggies managed the remainder of the game superbly.
With Krovinović withdrawn to bring on Bartley in defence, Rayhaan Tulloch, who had come on for the last half hour, was forced into a more disciplined role alongside the other substitute, Kenneth Zohore. Both were comfortable in possession, made the right decisions and Albion rarely looked under pressure. It would have been a travesty had Noble managed to put away West Ham’s best opportunity when the ball deflected into his path, but in the end the Baggies held on for a place in round five.
Lead photo by Catherine Ivill via Getty Images