Though they’ve dropped off the top a number of times, West Brom haven’t been out of the top two since October, have lost just five games all season and look on course for a Premier League return. How enjoyable has the season been so far?
The season has been great. Really, really enjoyable, certainly from an Albion perspective. Slaven Bilic was a real breath of fresh air when he was appointed in the summer and, with the signings they made, they perhaps revisited former transfer policies whereby they would sign players for little money having done their research on them and they are bearing the fruits of that. For example, Semi Ajayi was signed from Rotherham. Yes, they went down last season, but to get him for £1.3 million was absolutely fantastic business and he’s been a mainstay in the side. I don’t think any West Brom fan could say they knew much about Grady Diangana when they signed him on loan but he’s been outstanding and then Matheus Pereira has been the jewel in the crown, really. Again, like Diangana, no one knew all that much about him but Bilic had done his homework and knew people who’d recommended him because he’d been on loan at Nurnberg in the Bundesliga last season. He’s added assists, goals, is easy on the eye – he’s got the lot and has fitted in very, very comfortably. All in all, the consistency has been there and the mood is very, very positive.
This will be the second game back after the restart, with both sides having been out of action for three months due to the coronavirus pandemic. How did West Brom deal with the period?
I suppose the one thing all Championship teams have got in common is that this break has given players who were in injured the chance to come back and get fully again and that’s no different at West Brom, who’ve got a fully fit squad except from Nathan Ferguson – though I don’t think we’ll see him play for Albion again – and Jonathan Leko, who did his ACL on loan at Charlton. Other than that, they are in a great place. As it stands, Ahmed Hegazi and Diangana both had hamstring injuries before lockdown and they are both now back in training and options for Slaven Bilic.
Leeds were on the rampage before lockdown and looked to be gunning for the title, having won five on the spin without conceding. If the Baggies go up automatically alongside them, would there be a twinge of disappointment at finishing as runners-up?
I think it depends on who you ask, actually. For me, for example, I’d be quite disappointed. I’ve been a fan for the best part of 20 years and now that I’m getting the opportunity to cover them it’s been absolutely fantastic, but from here on in, I’d love to see them win the league. Leeds, of course, are a major rival and I don’t see anybody else threatening the No 1 spot, if not the automatic promotion places. In terms of missing out on the title, there would be certain disappointment but, equally, being in the top two with eight games to go and having a sizeable cushion between themselves and everyone else, I think they’d snap your arm off. At this point the title would be a bonus, but with the quality they possess in the squad, how good a season they’ve had and how much better it’s been from last season, there would be a twinge of disappointment at finishing second.
Marcelo Bielsa’s men are odds-on favourites with many bookmakers – will that suit West Brom going into the final stretch?
I think Leeds have actually helped Albion this season because they just seem to keep pushing one another; the fact neither of them have been out of the top two since October tells you all you need to know. They’ve kept the pace, even when both had blips over Christmas and though other teams closed the gap, none of them got close enough to overtake them. I think they are quite happy to keep each other going, in as much that, yes, there’s a title to be won, but they’ve complimented each other so far and it’s more about gaining automatic promotion.
Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on during the game?
The obvious one is Pereira (pictured above). From the start of February they reverted from a 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3, so the formation sparked an upturn in form because they were then able to put wins together and they won five of their seven during the month. He can come in off the right, with Robinson coming in off the left and they both support Hal Robson-Kanu who knits it all together and chips in with goals as and when he can. Those two are very important either side of him and they’ve struck up a really good relationship on the pitch. Another is Filip Krovinovic, who has taken his time to get into English football. He had to wait his turn, particularly when Pereira got up and running, because he was playing second fiddle in the No 10 role. Now that they’ve changed their system, he plays deeper alongside Jake Livermore and Romaine Sawyers, the latter of whom is the deep-lying player in the midfield three. Along with Livermore, Krovinovic is allowed to ‘play’ and he’s looked fantastic.
How is Slaven Bilic likely to set up his side at Griffin Park?
It will be similar to how they looked prior to the league’s suspension, but the return of Diangana could complicate Bilic’s selections as Callum Robinson and Kamil Grosicki were brought in in January to fill the void when he was injured. Bilic has now got something of a headache because Robinson has done really well and with Pereira, Krovinovic and Matt Phillips in there as well, I’m interested to see how he fits them all in. If I had to hazard a guess, this is how I’d think they’d line up: Johnstone, O’Shea, Ajayi, Hegazi, Townsend, Livermore, Sawyers, Krovinovic, Robinson, Pereira, Robson-Kanu.
What’s your score prediction for Friday's game?
It’s so hard to know what’s going to happen. Albion got a decent result at Griffin Park last season but I’ve been keeping an eye on the Bundesliga and away teams have been doing really well recently. I’d be tempted to say there will be goals, as I did before the original suspended fixture, because the attacking outlets in both of these teams are what catches the eye. Brentford’s front three are absolutely frightening and they were definitely the best team to play at The Hawthorns this season. It’s a smaller pitch so I’m going for a 2-2 draw.
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