More Than A Match
When the fixture generator spat out the list of matches assigned for each club for the forthcoming season, for the second year running West Brom were handed a horrible start to life back in the top flight.
The Albion faithful must have been wondering what they had done to offend the computer so much so that it handed league champions Manchester United an opening day trip to The Hawthorns followed by Chelsea hosting the Baggies less than a week later.
The previous season West Brom faced their four opening away games at each of the countries notorious 'top 4` clubs. Now while there is a strong argument for bad luck befalling Hodgson and co, the silver lining remains that two of the toughest fixtures on the calendar have now been dealt with, and although Albion have nothing to show for it in terms of points on the board, the performances have shown more than enough to the fans that this season holds a lot of promise.
Kicking off the campaign against the reigning champions of England for the second year running, a 2-1 loss against Manchester United was met with the strange blend of disappointment and optimism.
For the opening half an hour The Baggies were given somewhat of a footballing lesson with United dominating most of the play and they will have been frustrated to only have Wayne Rooney`s classy finish to show for it. Nani wasted good opportunities whilst ex-villain Ashley Young caused havoc for Steven Reid down their left hand side which eventually resulted in Reid picking up a booking for capitalising on a chance to try and put Young into the Birmingham Road End.
However then Albion started to get back into the game with a great opening for Paul Scharner ended with a fairly central shot which David De Gea would be expected to save, which he did fairly theatrically. Youssouf Mulumbu was winning the ball back in midfield and debutant Shane Long was doing an admirable job in holding the ball up and causing difficulties for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Somen Tchoyi provided a constant threat from wide and centrally, and it was clear to see that a lot of pre season had been spent in the gym as he floored Vidic with a shoulder barge before delivering a dangerous cross which fell to Scharner whose shot come cross was mis-directed. Not long before the break a break through was made when Long`s placed effort slipped under De Gea sending his team mates in at half time with a 1-1 scoreline to protect, or to build on.
The second half Albion pushed on and were a constant threat throughout, more than matching their illustrious opponents until around 10 minutes from time Young, who had a relatively quiet second half turned Chris Brunt with ease before his cross deflected twice and left another debutant between the sticks, Ben Foster, with no chance.
A cruel way to lose a game, whilst you could not begrudge United the victory, it would be hard to say a point would have flattered Hodgson`s men.
Following such a spirited performance was a trip to Stamford Bridge where the demons of a 6-0 defeat 12 months previously haunted the Albion faithful. However this only seemed to spur the team on, especially Shane Long who after only 4 minutes robbed Alex of the ball before finishing expertly giving the visitors a shock 1-0 lead. Even more surprisingly this lead was maintained until the break, and there was no luck about it.
Commentators and journalists pointed to a poor Chelsea performance, but that is all too easy to say, and what was just as apparent is that Chelsea could only play as well as they were allowed to. A solid defensive display was optimized by Youssouf Mulumbu`s excellent ball winning and retention of possession whilst Paul Scharner went about his job with quiet professionalism.
Another key factor was a solid goalkeeper between the sticks, who while forced into a couple of smart saves, installs an air of confidence into the fans and more importantly his back four.
However the second half came, and although West Brom remained in the game defending well, an air of inevitability was marked by Anelka`s low drive deflecting off the back of Jonas Olsson`s leg and spinning away from Foster into the back of the net. However Albion pressed on with Somen Tchoyi`s curling effort forcing a save out of Hilario, and Foster and Reid denying Anelka and then Malouda spectacularly in quick succession.
The air of inevitability had not yet vanished, and it was getting stronger with Chelsea cranking up the pressure until finally Boswinga evaded Nicky Shorey before delivering for Malouda to tuck home the winner.
Had Peter Odemwingie`s snap shot gone a yard either side of the keeper then Hodgson would have walked away with a wholly merited point but it just wasn`t to be. Again many positives would be taken away despite the desperation following the final whistle.
An optimist will take the view that two of the toughest fixtures in the calendar have been played whilst keeping the negative goal difference to a minimum, but all the pressure is now on Sunday`s fixture against Stoke City, a team who West Brom notoriously can never seem to beat.
So what is the key to The Baggies impressive yet losing start to the season? Well no one could argue that new signing Shane Long already looks the part with two goals in his first two games. It`s not just his finishing but his all round play. Not the tallest striker but sure does battle and put his body on the line with unexpected strength for his size. Decent aerial ability and a willingness and capability to hold the ball up mean he will continue to cause problems in this league.
Mulumbu has started the season where he left off last, in typically classy fashion whilst defensively the back line is looking tighter but not yet the finished product.
Despite all the positives highlighted, West Brom do sit at a lowly 18th position in the table and with a tough game on Sunday things could look even bleaker when Match of The Day 2 rolls around.
Yes there is plenty of games left to play but already it is crucial that points are put on the board so that Albion aren`t left to play catch up heading into September.