West Brom v Manchester United, Premier League, January 1, 2011
It’s all going wrong in the Midlands.
A cursory glance at the Premier League table heading into the New Year makes grim reading for all those little Englanders living in the centre of the country. Sixteenth place, and only out of the bottom three on goal difference, are Birmingham. Fifteenth, and one point better off than Brum, are Aston Villa. While just ahead of the Villains in fourteenth place, on goal difference only, are the Baggies.
Bunched up at the wrong end of the table, all three Midlands’ clubs are facing the relegation scrap this season and it is more than likely that one, if not two of the Birmingham-centred clubs nosedive into the Championship comes the season’s end.
In that regard West Brom should be panicking. The Baggies are sinking like the proverbial stone at present, having lost three on the spin, eight defeats in their last eleven matches, including a miserable 3-1 home battering last time out at the hands of the chicken nuggets, Blackburn. That defeat to Rovers also reduced the Black Country outfit to having the leakiest defence in the division, having failed to keep a clean sheet in 17 attempts. With the visit on undefeated Manchester United just around the corner, four straight league defeats looks a distinct possibility for Roberto di Matteo’s men.
Adding to the sense of insecurity around West Brom is their hit-and-miss record at the Hawthorns. The Baggies have been in mixed form at home, recording victories against Birmingham, Fulham, Sunderland and Newcastle but losing to Manchester City and Stoke.
There is some bright news though for hosts. Arguably their best player of the season, forward Chris Brunt, is available for selection again against the Red Devils having missed the loss to Rovers through suspension. The Northern Irish attacker has the highest amount of assists in the top flight this term, trailed by Manchester United’s own Luis Nani.
That cheery news is off-set however by two more suspensions this weekend. Central defender Gabriel Tamas faces a three-game ban after being sent off for deliberately bringing down Mame Biram Diouf in the dying minutes of the defeat by Rovers, while Gonzalo Jara will also be absent having collected his fifth booking of the season. Throw in the injury to Jonas Olsson, and the Baggies’ resources begin to look rather stretched.
While West Brom would love to have their full compliment of players for every match, against United that need is that much more piercing. Nevertheless, after having rallied to a fabulous 2-2 draw at Old Trafford earlier in the season, the hosts will be encouraged that they can cause Sir Alex’s team a few headaches.
Up top, with the likes of Peter Odemwingie, Graeme Dorrans and Simon Cox, Di Matteo has a few options, while midfielder Somen Tchoyi could also be a threat on the United goal having been in fine scoring form in recent weeks. Defensively however West Brom are under pressure to shore-up quickly after they conceded some soft goals from set-plays against Blackburn.
Turning to United, while Ferguson’s charges will feel themselves the favourites to claim all three points being the last undefeated team in the division, the truth is that that record has been achieved without the Red Devils hitting the highest heights. Recently there were some flashes of the old swagger returning against Sunderland on Boxing Day, but after failing to hold onto a 1-nil lead at St Andrews last time out (even though the Birmingham equaliser should have been chalked off for Zigic’s handball) it is clear that the Mancunian giants are still not a perfectly oiled machine.
Leading the imperfections, Wayne Rooney is the obvious target. Rooney has suffered a horrible 2010 during which time he flopped with England, fallen out of favour with the United faithful during his contract wranglings, and most importantly he’s lost his goalscoring touch. Rooney should get another crack at righting those wrongs on New Year’s day, but the longer this goal-drought continues the greater the likelihood that Javier Hernandez and the fit-again Michael Owen will receive more opportunities alongside Dimitar Berbatov.
Staying with their problems, Ferguson knows that United’s title prospects hinge on their away form. Put simply, if they had not been so wasteful on their travels, they would be out of sight.
Winning positions have been given up at Fulham, Everton and most recently at Birmingham, while United have been forced to come from behind against Bolton and Aston Villa to nick points. It all adds up to one win and seven draws from their eight Premier League games away from Old Trafford. No wonder Lassana Diarra has been linked with Old Trafford as United clearly lack some bit in the middle of the pitch from which to control games this season.
Nevertheless, United will be confident of taking all three points on Saturday. West Brom have a terrible record against the Mancs having last registered a win over them way back in 1984. And then you gaze their their squad list with players such as Van der Sar, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Fletcher and Nani, and the case for an away win only seems to get stronger.
101gg predicts: West Brom 0 – Manchester United 1