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‘Fireman Sam’, fabulous Fabinho & menacing Mane – The view from West Brom

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Liverpool are firm favourites to beat West Brom on Sunday afternoon, but Sam Allardyce will be out to make history repeat itself at Anfield.

The Reds have enjoyed the (very) rare luxury of a week without a game following their 7-0 dismantling for Crystal Palace last Saturday.

Jurgen Klopp‘s men sit top of the Premier League by four points, and with a favourable run of fixtures coming up, this could be their opportunity to pull away.

This weekend, it is the turn of relegation-threatened West Brom to try and end Liverpool’s long unbeaten home run, with Allardyce the last manager to taste victory at Anfield in the league during his Palace days.

Ahead of the game, we spoke to writer Paul Suart (@PaulSuartWBA) to get his opinion on both teams and how Sunday’s match will play out.

 

How would you assess West Brom’s start to the campaign?

STOKE-ON-TRENT, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 29, 2017: West Ham United's manager Slaven Bilic reacts during the FA Premier League match against Stoke City at the Bet365 Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Pretty disastrous really.

Most fans thought Slaven Bilic had done well to re-sign most of the loan players that helped him win promotion, but it was universally felt he needed more star quality and players with proven Premier League pedigree to make West Brom competitive on their return to the top flight.

In many ways, his hands were tied by a shoestring budget.

Their dismal start to the campaign, a hangover from the tail-end of last season and rumblings of discontent behind the scenes – key defender Ahmed Hegazi was sold without Bilic’s blessing and after the UK transfer window had closed – has come as no real surprise.

Likewise, the decision to sack Bilic.

The Croatian did a fine job in winning promotion a year ahead of schedule and was a hugely likeable figure at the club, but results are the be all and end all and Albion’s under Bilic had been poor for a long period of time.

Three wins in the final 11 Championship games last season was followed by a run of only one win in 13 Premier League matches, leaving the Baggies 19th when Bilic was sacked, albeit after a spirited 1-1 draw at Man City.

 

Do you think the Baggies will beat the drop?

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - Monday, August 10, 2015: A general view of West Bromwich Albion's The Hawthorns as they take on Manchester City during the Premier League match. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The title race and top-four battle is as open as it has been for many years, but it looks a little more predictable at the other end of the table.

The relegation scrap already appears to be between just four teams – Sheffield United, Fulham, Brighton and West Brom.

Leeds could get dragged in, but they are averaging over a point a game and I think they will dig out enough results to survive.

Burnley are by no means out of it, but Sean Dyche has a strong and settled back four and knows how to grind out results, so I think they will be fine and will probably finish mid-table.

Four teams fighting for one place – the odds aren’t great for any of the managers down there.

The only way Albion can escape is if they make four or five excellent signings in the January transfer window, but I really don’t envisage that happening.

So, in answer to your question, no I can’t see the Baggies staying up.

 

How happy are you with the appointment of Sam Allardyce?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, January 31, 2015: West Ham United's manager Sam Allardyce before the Premier League match against Liverpool at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

His CV speaks for itself – ‘Fireman Sam’ has damped down flames at West Ham, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Liverpool’s neighbours Everton.

His exploits as an excellent man-manager at club level obviously earned him a shot at the England job, too.

There’s no doubt he will improve certain players at The Hawthorns and he has the clout to attract some top talent in the transfer market, but I just don’t think he will be able to deliver quite enough.

 

Who have been West Brom’s three best players so far this season?

Three players instantly spring to mind.

Despite having been an ever-present in Albion’s last two league campaigns, Man United academy graduate Sam Johnstone has taken more than his fair share of flak from fans.

A string of quite brilliant displays in the top flight will surely have won round many of the doubters, though.

Johnstone has been in breathtaking form, and without him, Albion’s goal difference and points tally would be far more unsightly.

Like Johnstone, centre-back Semi Ajayi has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water.

He has been the one defender Albion fans have been able to count on to win a good proportion of personal duels. Not bad for a player who cost £1.5 million when he signed from Rotherham 17 months ago.

The only other player in credit this term – with perhaps the exception of rookie defender Dara O’Shea – is central midfielder Conor Gallagher, on loan from Chelsea.

Albion have been indebted to his superhuman endeavour in the centre of the park and his calmness in front of goal.

The 20-year-old scored the winner against Sheffield United and was on the scoresheet a week later in the 5-1 drubbing by Crystal Palace.

The fact that he is West Brom’s joint-highest scorer this term says it all really.

 

Switching our attention to Liverpool, do you still see them as the team to beat?

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, December 19, 2020: Liverpool's Takumi Minamino celebrates with team-mates after scoring the first goal during the FA Premier League match between Crystal Palace FC and Liverpool FC at Selhurst Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Before the season I thought Man City would stage a fightback to win the title and that big-spending Chelsea would make it a three-way tussle.

A third of the way through, I have altered my thinking somewhat.

The way Liverpool dismantled Palace, just a week after Tottenham laboured to a draw on the same ground, sent out a clear message.

More than that, it made me reassess and form the view Jurgen Klopp’s men are undoubtedly the team to beat.

Fabinho has effortlessly slotted into the rather sizeable shoes of Virgil van Dijk to the point you almost forget about the influential Dutchman.

His absence hasn’t really been felt thus far, which spells big trouble for Liverpool’s title rivals.

 

Looking ahead to Sunday’s game, who do you fear most for the Reds?

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, December 19, 2020: Liverpool's Sadio Mané celebrates after scoring the second goal during the FA Premier League match between Crystal Palace FC and Liverpool FC at Selhurst Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool have so many threats it’s hard to pin down one or even three!

I know he’s been struggling for form of late, but I still think Sadio Mane is the most destructive forward in the Premier League.

Keep him quiet, as teams have recently, and you have then got Mohamed Salah and a resurgent Roberto Firmino to shackle, not to mention the laser-like crosses from either flank through Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.

I really like what I’ve seen of young Curtis Jones lately, too.

He was brilliant against Spurs and if his rapid rise continues he could well stake a late claim for the England squad at next summer’s Euros.

 

Where do you see the key battles taking place?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, December 1, 2020: Liverpool's Joel Matip during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. Liverpool won 1-0 to win the group and progress to the Round of 16. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I suspect most of your interviewees pick out a midfield scrap or highlight the enormity of the tasks facing their team’s defenders against Liverpool’s fearsome front-three.

So I’m going to go against the grain and say Karlan Grant vs. Joel Matip.

If West Brom are to stand any chance of a freak result they must be clinical when, or indeed if, chances arrive. Grant has to try and get some change from Matip, because I doubt he will find Fabinho in a generous mood.

Albion will also have chief instigator Matheus Pereira back from suspension. The silky Brazilian scored on his last visit to Merseyside – a 5-2 defeat at Everton in September.

His ability to travel quickly with the ball will be vital if West Brom are to move up the pitch, while his vision and passing range could cause problems if his team can gain any meaningful final-third possession.?

All of that also depends on whether or not Allardyce throws him straight back in, of course.

 

Finally, hit us with your prediction…

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 16, 2020: Liverpool's match-winning goal-scorer Roberto Firmino celebrates after scoring the second goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 2-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

As much as I have tried to be positive, I can’t see anything other than a comprehensive victory for a team who are just so dominant on their own turf.

Liverpool 4-1 West Brom.

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