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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.