Saturday, April 30, 2011

WBA 2-1 Aston Villa F.C.

live text replay

with chris brunt, steven reid, graham dorrans and jerome thomas out of the side this week due to injury - and reduced to 10 men due to paul scharner's rash and unnecessary challenges that saw him ejected from the match on a pair of yellow cards - roy hodgson still managed to orchestrate the victory that puts the question all but beyond doubt.

with 43 points as their tally thus far, and with trips to wolves and newcastle still to come, as well as the season's last home fixture with everton, the baggies, it seems, have put the issue beyond question: there will be top-flight football at the hawthorns next year.

the question was ultimately settled by the baggies first win against local rivals, aston villa, since 1985.

and this was the one that mattered. while the rivalry with wolves has, since the 1950s, become one of the most intense in english football - and certainly it can get ugly, serving as a magnet for the worst type of followers from both clubs - but this year it was the villa that was the prize derby victory.

there's no doubt that the last minute draw with wolves at the hawthorns kicked off the present run of form, and marked roy hodgson's debut in charge of the baggies, but this all important derby with traditional rivals, the villa, justified all assertions that this is a resilient side with a winning character. the baggies have taken 26 points from games in which they have trailed. in light of this fact, it is worth noting that youssouf mulumbu has scored two late goals (against blackpool and aston villa) with the team at a numerical disdvantage due to sendings off.

this particular victory was also a fine and fair vindication of west brom's long suffering and much criticized chairman, jeremy peace. after a decade of play-offs, promotions, false-starts and relegations, the chairman's long-term plans can be reviewed to reveal a history of truly intelligent - and sometimes inspired - football management. every time that the baggies have waged a top-flight campaign - and every time they have been relegated and promoted back from the CHAMPIONSHIP again - they have always returned to the PREMIER LEAGUE a better team.

we may have gotten lucky with roy hodgson, and certainly the partnership of hodgson with the albion has been a perfect fit. so finely matched are the styles of each that it's hard not to see the gaffer at the hawthorns for an extended stay now. as long as the baggies can keep surviving the PREMIER LEAGUE we will have something quite special at west brom for some time to come.

the most striking thing about this match from the point of view of the baggies is the manner in which the villa took the lead and the albion's subsequent reaction over the next 86 minutes.

clearly it was the villa who started off the better of the two teams. in possession the visitors clearly had control of the flanks and made penetrating runs down the wings, making it difficult for the baggies to defend right from the outset.

with just four minutes gone west brom paid the price when stewart downing beat nicky shorey down the right side and provided a cross which saw abdoulaye meite score an unfortunate own goal, badly slicing his clearance past a rooted and helpless scott carson. while he probably should have tried to clear the ball by turning and using his left foot instead of facing the goal and trying the clearance with his right, it was the kind of mistake that happens to every centre-half at some point. meite was just the victim of his own instinctive reaction. you can't blame him really, and i think it was as much plain bad luck as anything.

before roy hodgson's arrival at the hawthorns, this type of goal - and coming so early in the match - would have destroyed the defensive confidence - and considering the baggies were generally outplayed in the first half, they almost certainly would have folded and gone on to lose this one under roberto di matteo. but this is a different albion side. meite, along with the rest of the back four - went on to play a solid game and the baggies were certainly the side of superior character at the end of the day - and that's what really counts!

the gaffer showed his tactical superiority last week at white hart lane and continued in good form by getting the baggies into the dressing room with only the one goal deficit and setting out to turn things around in the second-half. a large part of hodgson's genius at west brom has been in his use of personnel.

roberto di matteo did not like using players he considered to be of a lesser than "top-flight" caliber. it was clear, for example, that he did not consider either simon cox or abdoulaye meite (as well as a host of others) good enough to play in the PREMIER LEAGUE. roy hodgson, on the other hand, knows how to use players, and gets the best out of their natural abilities through superior organization of a side at any level of football.

but then hodgson has the benefit of never having played first team league football, and doesn't have the natural prejudices of the virtuoso performer.

to their credit, the baggies weathered whatever the villa could manage to throw at them, and in chasing the game the visitors played into the albion's hands. with a man advantage and a superior count of possession, the villa gambled and brought on robert pires for nigel reo-coker. the 38-year-old midfield maestro had no running or invention and his lack of passing and pace negated somewhat the numerical advantage that the villa had had but could make nothing of in the end.

this allowed youssouf mulumbu to go forward in attack as he has done before on several occassions when the the rest of the team is intentionally set out to defend. one only has to think of his late goal at bloomfield road with the baggies down to 9 men, or his brilliance and abandon when scoring away to middlesbrough last year in the CHAMPIONSHIP as the baggies capped off a 9 game unbeaten run with a 5-0 win over a hapless boro side.

while mulumbu was given yet another routine "MAN OF THE MATCH" award by the hawthorns faithful, there would have been justifiable argument to give it to simon cox. the young striker tirelessly ran the channels up front and was instrumental in both goals on the heels of his spectacular equalizer last week at white hart lane. i will expect him to start again next week against wolves.

with injuries threatening to keep club captain, chris brunt, as well as several other key players out of the line-up for the upcoming fixture at the molineux, and paul scharner due to serve a single match ban for the red-card at the hawthorns, the derby with wolves is going to be even tougher than expected.

of course, wolves will be scrapping for their very lives as a PREMIER LEAGUE club, and i know that the idea of going down at home to the albion is something that more than a few wolves' supporters will find hard to countenance. while it would be a fittingly heroic end to the best season of the modern era for the baggies, it would likewise be too cruel a fate for a wolves side that has played some good football this year.

it should make for a great derby atmosphere.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Almost Home

Tottenham Hotspur F.C. 2-2 WBA

live text replay

it wasn't until a few days after the win at sunderland that i realized i could probably stop worrying.

the baggies were now on 39 points, were 11th in the table and nothing short of complete collapse would see them struggling in terms of PREMIER LEAGUE survival. there will almost certainly be top-flight football (and more £40-plus ticket prices) again at the hawthorns next season.

with the possibility of roy hodgson's appointment becoming long-term - and with an eye towards development of the club as a "consolidated" PREMIER LEAGUE commodity - we could be at the outset of a really good time at the hawthorns.

however, it's not the 1970's and top-three finishes for the baggies are an occasion long since disappeared from the realms of possibility; but, i can see, for example, maybe a successful run in one of the domestic cup competitions and/or qualifying for the EUROPA LEAGUE. who knows?

any kind of top-ten finish next season will be considered nothing short of genius management and a brilliant, shining success. right now, however, the goal will be the same as it was this year: 17th in league table or better. from a practical point of view, anything more would be highly speculative and probably unrealistic.

the hallmark of this year's albion team has been their ability to always be competitive. that is, they always played well against the top clubs and were usually able to raise their game to meet the occasion. the rather sensational arrival of peter odemwingie aside, this quality would still have its roots in the kind of side that tony mowbray was about developing, and which roberto di matteo took one step further. in fact, hodgson's genius has been to take the work and vision of the previous two gaffers and galvanize their styles and practices into a winning proposition.

and so it was at white hart lane. the baggies went head-to-head with one of the most exciting attacking teams in the PREMIER LEAGUE and came away with a thoroughly deserved point thanks to simon cox' first goal in the top-flight.

having come on as a late substition - and with the baggies chasing the game - the young striker took his opportunity as the ball fell for him at the top of the box. cox curled an unstoppable shot past a stretching heurelho gomes and into the top corner of the tottenham net for a cracking goal of the first order.

WBA 1-3 Chelsea F.C.

live text replay

what more realistic manner for the baggies' - and new gaffer, roy hodgson's - unbeaten run to come to an end than with a loss in the face of what was really a technically superior performance by the current league champions? i don't think anyone would have too many complaints or grumbles about the outcome of this one.

there was however, several minutes following peter odemwingie's 12th goal of the season - and setting a new individual club goal scoring record for a west brom team in the post-PREMIER LEAGUE era - where it looked like the baggies were going to do it again.

while chelsea gave their opposition precious little possession in the first quarter-of-an-hour, the albion went 1-0 up in the 17th minute. on what was virtually the first move forward for the baggies, the blues were caught with the backline playing too high. james morrison took advantage and put a short ball down the centre for thomas who pushed the ball on for odemingie to chip the chelsea keeper, pedr cech. there was the familiar faint wiff of another unlikely victory over one of the best teams in europe in the air.

but it was all rather short-lived as didier drogba levelled the score just minutes later. salomon kalou, and eventually frank lampard, made sure there would be no fanciful heroics from the baggies this week. chelsea were by far the batter team in all categories and the baggies never really got a foot-hold in the game.

in light of the albion's recent form this was somewhat sobering and out of character with the performances that the baggies have put in against top 5 sides this season. in fact, manchester city was the only other side in the current top 7 that the baggies have taken no points from this season in the league. they did, however, manage to knock the sky blues out of the LEAGUE CUP in the 2nd round.

as the season winds down and the baggies look more and more like they will be facing the "second season syndrome" of the PREMIER LEAGUE as their next crucial long-term test, there is little to criticize and much to be admired about our club at the moment.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Two Big Steps Closer

Sunderland A.F.C. 2-3 WBA

live text replay

following on their current unbeaten run - and a priceless victory over liverpool which saw the baggies move up 4 places in the table and 5 points clear of the drop - they are definitely the current form team amongst the relegation battlers. pending the next couple of results, which now loom ever more ominously with each passing round of this season's BARCLAY'S PREMIER LEAGUE competition, the albion look like they're going to survive - and perhaps even ahead of schedule where there are more than one or two teams that look like it's going to go down to the last day to decide their league status for next season.

it's still early days, but for me, this was the yar that the baggies finally arrived as a top-flight outfit in the post-PREMIER LEAGUE era. for the state of the current squad and the challenges that the club now faces, they have the best and most appropriate manager possible. big wins and good performances against world famous clubs being internationally televised have now made the baggies instantly recognizable to the mainstream sports bar soccer crowds that follow manchester united, liverpool, chelsea and arsenal in big cities all over north america every saturday morning.

in short, this was the season that "west bromwich albion" became a recognizable PREMIER LEAGUE "brand" in the developing international TV markets. even the most recent of converts to the sport and freshest of fans where i live, here in toronto, who watch and support the "big four" now immediately recognize the famous navy-and-white striped jersey as well as the throstle and hawthorn branch club badge.

people i've known for years are seeing the baggies regularly on TV now comment to me on each week's game. west bromwich albion have finally returned from the footballing wilderness and have only to claim and consolidate their rightful place amongst the mid-table regulars in the premiership. whatever happens from here on out - and provided the albion survive the PREMIER LEAGUE - i think that chairman jeremy peace can feel somewhat vindicated after years of supporter criticism as to his lack of ambition for the club.

while it was a first, and the baggies have had a history of sticking with their managers through previous unsuccessful PREMIER LEAGUE campaigns, the appointment of roy hodgson as head coach was a stroke of genius and may be the most important move in the club's recent history. thinking of it as a long term proposition, the baggies could have something really great going on at the hawthorns and for some years to come. this is where the chairman's long term plans will start to become evident and we shall see the fruition of all the years of careful - and sometimes conservative - planning that has gone into the club.

WBA 2-1 Liverpool F.C.

live text replay

while i haven't said so in a long time and i'll take this opportunity to remind myself again: this is a very good baggies team. in fact, this is the best baggies side since cyrille regis was with the club.

peter odemwingie is probably as good a buy as anyone made in the PREMIER LEAGUE this year. he is set to register a new club record for premiership goals in a season, and with 11 already to his credit there's very few players who will have been as good a return for the money spent as the nigerian striker has been for the baggies.

while he didn't add to his season's total in the game against liverpool, he was effective in winning the penalties that chris brunt went on to score as the albion broke yet another long-standing hoodoo.

roy hodgson's organization of the back four is becoming evident and they look more disciplined with each passing game. nicky shorey has nailed down the starting left-back position, and the gaffer's selection of steven reid on the right has really strengthened the defensive game down the flanks. bringing back abdoulaye meite to partner jonas olsson has been a relative stroke of genius, and gianni zuiverloon's presence on the bench indicates that a general re-appraissal has gone on in regards to at least some of the members of this year's 25-man squad.

simon cox started - as i recently predicted would happen - against sunderland in a more conventional attacking role, and was made better use of than at anytime since last season in the CHAMPIONSHIP, where he established a frighteningly good goals to game ratio. the young albion striker played what will have been his best hour of football in the PREMIER LEAGUE to date. after missing a point-blank scoring opportunity on a truly great save by sunderland's belgian international, simon mignolet, the young striker put in a performance comprised of an enterprising work-rate, non-stop running and strong support play in getting into some good attacking positions around the box.

the gaffer has been responsible for the rehabilitation of scott carson after the albion goalie lost both form and confidence in a disastrous performance away to fulham back in january. his reshuffling of the first team has also strengthened his options in regards to substitutes. marek cech, for example, has played some of his most useful football as back-up for the defensive midfield duo of youssouf mulumbu and paul scharner. hodgson has even found the impact player coming off the bench that the baggies have been missing this last couple of years in carlos vela. the mexican international scored both late goals, at home to wolves and away to stoke respectivley, which earned two late draws for the albion and kick-started their present unbeaten run.

while there are two tough home games, and what would be expected a difficult away fixture with tottenham before the baggies travel to the molineaux to play a wolves side who will as likely as not be fighting for their premiership lives. the baggies will almost certainly be safe by then. the general concensus is that 3 points will do it, and on their current form, the albion should be able take all three at home to the villa... at least, that's what i'm expecting. if they can take anything from either of their games with the two london clubs, that would be a bonus.

given the PREMIER LEAGUE fixture list over the next five or six weeks, it's even quite possible that the 39 points which they already have will be enough to keep them up.

unlike what roy hodgson accomplished at fulham two years ago, he seems to have hit the ground running at the hawthorns and his fine tuning of the defensive organization without disrupting the attacking qualities of the albion has been the secret to his success so far. while they are just on the verge - and i stress again, whatever happens from this point out - this will be the year that the baggies really arrived as serious team ready to play in the PREMIER LEAGUE. they have already outperformed - and by a wide margin - any west brom team that has waged a top-flight campaign in 30 years, and the foundation for future PREMIER LEAGUE competition now seems well established.

this is a huge moment in the club's history and if the baggies can get it right in their last few matches of the season, they might be able to go on and have something fantastic at the hawthorns for years to come.