the baggies kicked off their third consecutive PREMIER LEAGUE season by continuing their current rehabilitation as a top-flight side and breaking yet another long-time hoodoo. not having won an opening day fixture in the top division for several decades, west bromwich albion, at home and under the direction of their new head coach, steve clarke, demolished an average looking liverpool team by a deserved score of 3-0.
while the merseysiders looked dangerous and had the better of the play for the first twenty minutes - thanks to the attacking skill of luis suarez - they were otherwise shut down by clarke's new-look albion side. along with the superbly disciplined back four and a sophisticated defensive game that the team learned under roy hodgson, the new gaffer has brought a CHAMPIONS LEAGUE attacking style to the club.
with five top-flight strikers now in the first-team squad, places in the starting team are going to be hard won this year. while simon cox and somen tchoyi have moved on, the baggies have retained shane long, peter odemwingie and marc-antoine fortune with midfielder, zoltan gera, returning from a season long injury. to their attacking options they have added swedish international, markus rosenberg - who was not yet fit to play on saturday; and teenage striker, romelu lukaku, who most decidedly was.
the 19 year-old belgian international, who is on season long loan at the hawthorns from chelsea, immediately made an impression and displayed his top-flight pedigree with the third and final goal for the albion after coming on as a 68th minute substitute for shane long.
the real surprise was that steve clarke started the match with a an adventurous and flexible 4-2-1-3 formation. the forward line saw gera moved into an advanced position on the left, odemwingie on the right and long at centre-forward. james morrison sat behind them as attacking midfielder with youssouf mulumbu and claudio yacob in the defensive holding positions. stephen reid has recovered from injury and was started at right-back, while liam ridgewell has nailed down the left-back spot since his arrival from blues last year. despite much speculation, jonas olsson has returned, and the swedish international has been paired up again with gareth mcauley at centre-half. together they are as good a set of central defenders as has been at the club since the 1970s.
while i say that this formation was "adventurous", it did make me think, well how ELSE do you play football at a big club like liverpool or chelsea?!? the answer, of course, was obvious. steve clarke has a long history of being associated with top clubs and it looks, at the moment, like he is going to be a top manager. he may even be someone who would be able to acheive what the average albion supporter hasn't been able to imagine possible since the days of cyrille regis and tony brown. but then, it's probably a bit premature to project top-four finishes and CHAMPIONS LEAGUE nights returning to the hawthorns just yet.
however - and in the quest to revive the traditional spirit of west bromwich albion - this is the best balance that the baggies have had between quality and depth in the side for years, and a cup run wouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility.
what was different about this performance compared to other results acheived against the big clubs over the last two seasons, was just how dominant the baggies were in both attack and defence. last year's win over chelsea at the hawthorns, for example, was a deteremined defensive display that totally shut down the london club's top scorers, allowing centre-half gareth mcauley to nick a late winner from a chris brunt corner to give west brom a long overdue victory over the blues.
against liverpool, however, the baggies were the better team all day long and in every aspect. despite some good passing in the middle of the park, and several good chances that fell to luis suarez inside the first half-hour, it was zoltan gera who got the baggies' season started with a goal that resulted from a james morrison corner in the 42nd minute. martin skrtel's clearance fell to gera just beyond the edge of the reds' penalty area, and needing a single touch to bring it under control, the hungarian international blasted a 20-25 yard screamer past a helpless pepe reina in the liverpool goal.
the baggies led 1-0 at the half.
the albion totally dominated the second period as shane long went on to win two penalties in the space of a few minutes. through on goal in the 57th minute, and with only reina to beat, the young irish striker felt a desperate and beaten daniel agger dig an elbow into his back. he went over in the box and won the decision which also saw the liverpool defender red-carded. however, long's effort was as poor a penalty as one is likely to see at this level of football and was an easy save for the liverpool keeper. it was only moments later that long won a second penalty and a chance to make ammends for the earlier missed opportunity.
chasing down the play in the liverpool penalty area, long used his pace and skill to get in behind the reds' defenders - and coming from the blind-side - took the ball from martin skrtel. skrtel then unwittingly gave away the second spot-kick when long was tripped up as he muscled himself into position between skrtel and the ball.
despite a debate amongst the west brom forwards as to who would take the kick, the responsibility fell to peter odemwingie. this time there was no mistake as the nigerian international buried a ferocious effort in the corner of the net beyond reina's reach just inside his right-hand post.
newcomer, romelu lukaku, came on as a 68th minute substitute for shane long, made an immediate impact as an incisive baggies' counter-attack saw the teenage striker put james morrison in with a gilt-edged scoring opportunity. with only pepe reina to beat, morrison curled his effort just wide of the far post when he really should have scored.
with albion continuing to press, a scuffed clearance fell to liam ridgewell, who looped in a perfect cross for lukaku to head home into an empty net at the far post.
while there wasn't a weak performance in the albion side, it was defensive midfielder, claudio yacob, that walked away with the man-of-the-match award. the argentinian was near perfect in his distribution. not only was he winning balls in the centre of the park, but completed a stunning 98% of his passes attempted.
however, the real star of the match was new albion boss, steve clarke. he looked cool, calm, composed and every bit the PREMIER LEAGUE manager. his team selection, as well as the confident manner in which he had the baggies playing, showed him to be possessed of a top footballing brain. his assured presence in leadership was evident and he appeared more than ready for a job he has clearly been preparing for for quite some time.
if this performance was any indication of things to come, then the baggies might just have made that crucial step up to the next level and are on their way to another successful year in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE.