West Bromwich Albion 2 Preston North End 0
Two goals from Turkish midfielder Okay Yokuşlu made it seven wins from the last eight games of 2022 for Albion as Preston North End were comfortably beaten in front of a sell out Hawthorns crowd.
The margin of victory would have been much greater had it not been for a string of excellent saves from Lilywhites ‘keeper, Freddie Woodman, who kept out efforts from Wallace, Diangana and Thomas-Asante before Okay opened the scoring late in the first half with a fierce drive from 20 yards.
North End came into the game having won four of their last five games on the road backed by an expectant sell out away following, but after struggling to settle early on, Albion completely dominated the game. Despite the visitors edging the possession statistics, the Baggies created far more chances with 17 shots on goal to the visitors’ 8, and 8 on target to Preston’s 2.
Corberán made just three changes to the starting line up, two of which were probably expected with Thomas-Asante and Rogić coming in for Dike and Swift, but the third saw Grady Diangana finally given a start in place of Matt Phillips. The former West Ham winger took his chance and produced a lively display, touching the ball more frequently than any of Albion’s attacking players despite being withdrawn just after the hour mark.
Albion were excellent in the first half but found Woodman in spectacular form. It looked like Preston may hold out until the break until Okay took matters into his own hands. The chance actually game following a loose pass from Tom Rogić, the Australian having one of his quieter days. The Turk intercepted and then side-stepped the challenge from Ledson, held off Preston skipper Alan Browne before unleashing an unstoppable strike into the bottom left hand corner. It was no more than the hosts deserved.
The visitors started the second half brightly but, once Corberán replaced Rogić with Swift, Albion looked far more comfortable. Swift almost doubled the lead striking the crossbar from 20 yards, before Yokuşlu grabbed his second before the hour mark. Albion had pressed the North End defence well and forced them into a number of errors. One of those finally led to a goal when Woodman played the ball out to Whiteman who turned unaware that the Turk was in close attendance – he nicked the ball pushing it to John Swift who advanced to the edge of the box before playing in Okay who poked it past Woodman.
That was pretty much game over. Dike came on for Thomas-Asante, who would have been disappointed not to bag a birthday goal, and at one point the American showed some of the strength and power we know he has shrugging off a challenge in the corner before burling a shot just wide of the far post. Adam Reach and Karlan Grant also got some rare minutes under the new boss but Semi Ajayi must wait until the New Year for his return to the field having been an unused substitute once again.
Preston did have one or two moments late on as Albion gave away a few unnecessary free kicks. One resulted in a bit of penalty box pinball that saw the ball strike a post, but that was as good as it got for the visitors who ended 2022 with three straight defeats.
Okay obviously took man-of-the-match with his two goals and another imperious midfield display, while I thought that Molumby was also excellent alongside him and I was surprised that he was taken off. Perhaps it was a case of Corberán wanting to give some minutes to one or two others. Thomas-Asante was as busy as ever making plenty of intelligent runs and unlucky not to get on the scoresheet, while Wallace was once again a real livewire.
At the back, O’Shea had one or two dodgy moments when playing the ball out but the defence as a whole looked solid. It could be that Ajayi will have to wait to get back onto the pitch, but perhaps the FA Cup tie at Chesterfield would seem the most likely opportunity for him and a few other fringe players to get a chance to impress.
The recorded attendance of 25,316 was the largest at the Hawthorns for almost three years since 25,618 watched the 1-1 draw with Leeds United on New Year’s Day 2020. It shows that if the team is winning, the fans will come – the top two Hawthorns attendances have come in the last three games and, by the time football paused for the COVID pandemic in February 2020, ten of the eighteen home games played that season had attracted attendances in excess of 24,000 – the Preston match was the first such game in this campaign.
Perhaps Monday’s visit of Reading will attract another bumper holiday crowd – a 3pm kick-off on a Bank Holiday looks like a good bet, particularly when victory could propel Albion firmly into the play-off picture.