Are battle-weary Baggies running out of ammunition?
The muddy, bloody battlefields of the Championship appear to be taking their toll on West Bromwich Albion’s promotion challenge.
Ok, I exaggerate a little. The pitch at Plymouth was poor, though hardly Somme-like, and some of the injuries have been sustained in training or warm-up rather than in the rough-and-tumble of match action.
Yet Albion looked like shell-shocked soldiers during a tame second-half surrender at Bristol City on Sunday afternoon.
At various points during the past month, the club’s injury list has included Ishmael Millar, Gonzalo Jara, Roman Bednar, Abdou Meite, Marek Cech, and James Morrison.
Throw in Jerome Thomas’s four-match ban, and new signing Giles Barnes not being match fit, and it’s easy to see why Baggies boss Roberto di Matteo has had a grumble about the fixture pile-up caused by the team’s FA Cup run, which continues tonight at the Hawthorns with the Fifth Round replay against Reading.
Are such grumbles valid?
After all, I’m old enough to remember when most football grounds really did look like the Somme. And how teams like Liverpool, Forest and Villa won League titles and much more besides using squads numbering in the mid-teens.
Tiredness and injuries are certainly causing problems for Albion – the recent four-match winning streak was not entirely representative of form – but there are a few other shortcomings that may shoot down the team’s promotion push.
One is the dreadful form of the fullbacks. Joe Mattock arrived with an impressive CV, but has been destroyed in two of the past three games by nippy, yet hardly exceptional wingers in Reading’s Jimmy Kebe and Bristol City’s Danny Haynes. At 19, he has time on his side, but pace is not something you can learn. On the other flank, Gonzalo Jara’s season-ending injury means square-peg-in-round-hole Gianni Zuiverloon provides another soft underbelly.
This unfortunately puts more pressure on the centre halves, who are still prone to more lapses than might be expected of Ivory Coast, Romania, and soon-to-be Sweden (Olsson) internationals.
Up front, Kevin Phillips’ two goals for Birmingham against Wolves recently reminded all Albion fans what has been missing in that department since his untimely departure in summer 2008. Bednar’s form has picked up, but neither the lazy Luke Moore, the inexperienced Chris Wood, the uncertain Simon Cox, nor the unfit Miller are reliable goal-getters.
Which means midfield is where the war will have to be won. It remains the exciting, creative, beating heart of the team, exemplified by young Scot Graham Dorrans, who has been described in hushed tones as Albion’s best midfielder since Bryan Robson. Mulumbu is back to his best in the pivot role, after being inexplicably dropped for the middle part of the season. New signings Ben Watson, Andwele Slory and Frank Nouble, plus the return from injury of last season’s player of the year James Morrison, and – from suspension – Jerome Thomas, will add even more artillery to the centre of the park.
Tonight, Albion fans can forget the Championship slog for 90 – or 120 minutes – and enjoy the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup, and a possible quarter-final derby with Villa.
Or is that one battle we could do without at the moment?