West Brom 2 Newcastle United 3
By the end of the match, Albion were able to bow out of the FA Cup with their heads held high following a spirited second half comeback against a strong Newcastle United side, although for a while it looked like being a very disappointing surrender.
In my opinion, however, it was never a 3-0 game. There wasn’t a lot between the sides which, when you consider that Bilić made nine changes from the side that played at the weekend, was an encouraging sign. The main difference was the movement and pace of the Newcastle attacking players which caused constant problems for an Albion defensive unit that was not used to playing together.
The weakest point in the Baggies team was the midfield. Gareth Barry looked every one of his 39 years as the game very much passed him by – there were one or two nice touches but he was largely anonymous. His bizarre decision to let the ball run past him in the middle of the park led directly to the visitors’ third goal, and it was no surprise when he was withdrawn before the hour mark.
His veteran partner, Chris Brunt, wasn’t much better in the first half. Everything he tried seemed to go wrong and he became ever more frustrated. After the break, however, he was much improved and played a part in Albion’s comeback.
The ineffectiveness of his midfield partners before half time meant that much of the work fell to Rekeem Harper and the youngster did a pretty good job. Full of energy and plenty of skillful touches and neat passes, it was another impressive performance from the academy graduate.
It was the introduction of Filip Krovinović that made all the difference – he bossed the game from the moment he came onto the field and was the chief instigator of Albion’s recovery. He went close with a couple of efforts of his own and he was constantly looking for the incisive pass, while his movement helped both Harper and Brunt in being able to move the ball much more quickly.
Matt Phillips was another player who was anxious to prove that he deserves his place back in the first eleven. He was a constant threat all evening and, of course, it was he who gave the fans hope with the Baggies first goal with 16 minutes left.
Kyle Edwards also put in a decent performance and was unlucky when he hit the bar in the second half, while his jinking run into the box that set up Zohore’s goal in stoppage time was outstanding.
Charlie Austin will have been disappointed at making so little impact on the match, and may be concerned that he lost his mojo when he removed the blond highlights! He had a couple of efforts on target but looked generally laboured. Zohore looked more energetic when he came on and grabbed his fifth goal of the season in stoppage time. Despite that, I do feel Austin is the better finisher, but the Dane offers more outside of the box, although neither look like rivalling HRK for a place in the starting line up any time soon.
At the back, it was a difficult evening. It was great to see Kieran Gibbs back and, while he did OK, he was evidently a little rusty. Dara O’Shea showed signs of the fact that he has got used to playing a full back. Switched into what was his preferred position of centre back, he looked a little exposed. It didn’t help that Jonathan Bond in goal also looked a little shaky after some early attempts to play out from the back went wrong, although he did make a couple of great saves in the second half.
Darnell Furlong played his first football since a substitute appearance against Luton at the beginning of February and did OK going forward, but also looked uncomfortable in an unfamiliar back line.
The best performance at the back came from Kyle Bartley who looked assured throughout and, as Albion dominated the closing stages of the game, became one of the key playmakers as he stepped into midfield with the ball on numerous occasions.
All three of Newcastle goals were poor from an Albion point of view and the Baggies created plenty of chances, particularly in the second half. I have no doubt that Bilić’s first team would have been good enough to beat the Magpies, and even the side that did play could easily have won the game with a little more luck and a little better finishing.
It was an entertaining game and, while I would have preferred a place in the Sixth Round, the Baggies can now devote all of their attention to the Championship run in.
One final point to note is about Chris Brunt. I’m glad he improved after the break because I think that may be the last time we see him in an Albion shirt. Unless the title is won before the end of the season, I’m not expecting to see him in the first team and the expectation is that this will be his last season at the Hawthorns. A true Albion legend – I sincerely hope that there will be an opportunity for him to say his goodbyes properly before the campaign draws to a close.
Lead photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images