After a 15-week hiatus, Blues finally return to playing tomorrow as they face West Brom at the Hawthorns. Although there hasn’t been any action on the pitch during the break, there has been plenty off it.
Following the announcement that Blues will be looking for their fifth manager in 3 years, due to once again temporary Head Coach Pep Clotet stepping down at the end of the season, there has been a swirl of speculation as to who will take charge in the summer.
Regardless, in the first of his final nine remaining matches Pep will be looking to overturn the club’s recent poor derby form. This alarming record sees the last victory against the Baggies coming in October 2006, where a Gary McSheffrey double saw Blues win 2-0.
The most recent head to head also saw a double, with Charlie Austin coming off the bench for the Baggies to shock Blues with two goals in eight minutes to win the West Midlands derby. It was a game that, arguably, Blues should have won after outplaying the Baggies for the majority of the ninety minutes. This time around, the stadium will be eerily quiet with fans being replaced flags and banners. Could the lack of a home atmosphere for the Baggies play into the hands of Blues?
Last time out
Prior to the season being halted Blues fell to a 3-1 loss at the hands of Reading, which ended their ten match unbeaten run in the league. Despite Scott Hogan scoring his seventh goal in just nine matches, three second half goals for the visitors saw them take home all of the points.
Blues’ Championship form: W D D D D L
The Baggies most recent turnout saw them being knocked off the top of the Championship following a goalless draw with Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. The Baggies had hoped to get back to winning ways after suffering their first defeat in seven league games in their previous match. Swansea, however, deservedly came away with a point and Bilić will have worked his squad hard over the break in the hope of securing promotion over the remaining games.
West Brom’s Championship form: W D W W L D
Josh McEachran remains the only long-term absentee from the Blues, with the midfielder still recovering from his knee injury he suffered against Coventry back in February. Pep Clotet announced on Thursday that two players will face late fitness tests after picking up slight injuries, however he did name these players for “tactical reasons”. Additionally following announcements that Mrabti and Maghoma will be departing at the end of the month, both are not expected to play before their contracts expire.
West Brom on the other hand also have long-term injury’s with Jonathan Leko and Nathan Ferguson not available for selection. Other than these absentees, Bilic has a relatively clean bill of health heading into tomorrow’s fixture. Ahmed Hegazy and Grady Diangana have both recovered from their respective hamstring injuries and are expected to return.
Views from the dugouts
Pep Clotet expects a tough game tomorrow, stating
West Brom are a fantastic club with a really strong squad and a fantastic manager as well. I like how the team plays because they try to do everything right when they have the ball and when they don’t, and whether they’re winning or losing. We had a fantastic game against them at St. Andrew’s (earlier in the season) when we saw the quality of their bench. In my opinion they are one of the best teams in the Championship in years and I see them as clear candidates for the title.
However, Clotet also thinks that his “own team and players know what they’re doing. I know we will try and exploit their weaknesses as we do in every game and we are going to compete.”
Meanwhile Slaven Bilić has referred to the remaining games as a “mini World Cup” claiming that his players will “get their confidence and their rhythm they might need some time of course. But for the start, we couldn’t be any better really”
Bilić also heaped praise on Blues saying
(they are) a team that up front can become dangerous in absolutely no time with Lukas Jutkiewicz and Scott Hogan. They have good wingers. They are hard to beat. They are good at set-plays, second-balls. Direct football. But we have to take responsibility and show our quality.
Photo Courtesy: Roy Smiljanic / BCFC