Sport Soccer

Friday 13 December 2019

Baggies basking in glow of their Indian summer


Sandy Macaskill

Roberto Di Matteo sniffed the air this week and predicted a harsh winter for West Bromwich Albion, but so far it would seem that his skills are better suited to football management than meteorology.

Judging by the dramatic downpours and biting chill, winter is fast approaching the West Midlands in the physical sense, but with 15 points after nine games propelling them up to fourth place in the Premier League, West Brom are enjoying an extended summer.

Di Matteo's prudence is logical, though. It has been a glorious return to the top table, but these are early days.

Yes, there were excellent contributions from defensive midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu, who guarded the back four like a sergeant in the Coldstreams, and Chris Brunt on the right wing, but chances to put the game to bed were missed and late pressure from Fulham ensued.

There is also this to consider: on another day, with other officials, their winning goal could have been over-ruled. Marc-Antoine Fortune was offside when the attack built, but by the letter of the law he was deemed to be inactive. Inactive enough to score seconds later, one observer pointed out.

Mark Hughes rose to the bait. "We are all aware of the ambiguity [of the offside rule]," he said. "It gives referees something to hide behind."

There were also banana-skin moments which came as stark reminders that the progression under Di Matteo, although profound, is in its adolescence.

At its simplest, West Brom's revival is built on a bedrock of gumption going forward but, mainly, fewer silly mistakes at the back -- although there were two howlers in the first 15 minutes of this match which should have left Fulham 2-0 up. That they did not explains why Hughes's side are hovering just above the relegation zone.

The first mistake came when Mulumbu was dispossessed by Moussa Dembele. The forward quickly squared to Zoltan Gera, who fired goalwards. Scott Carson pushed the ball onto the post, and was unfortunate that it rebounded back off him and into the goal.

Diomansy Kamara should have extended Fulham's lead when Gonzalo Jara played a square ball across the face of his area to no-one in particular. That was intercepted by Kamara but he failed to hit the target.

West Brom's management have stressed the importance of scoring first in this division, but it has proved a tricky concept to put into practice -- they have only managed it twice in the league. On the flip side it shows West Brom's resilience in coming from behind, which has much to do with Brunt's second sight.

The winger reads defenders' minds, anticipates team-mates' movement and more often than not delivers with pinpoint accuracy. His pass through the Fulham defence in the 18th minute was superb. Fortune and Mulumbu could both have shot, but the latter reacted first and slipped the ball past Mark Schwarzer. "Great movement," observed Di Matteo.

Wind billowing back into the West Brom sails, Brunt found Jerome Thomas dashing into the left side of the Fulham area with another through-pass. The winger went to the byline then laid it back for Fortune, who side-footed past Schwarzer five minutes before the break.

Having not missed an opportunity to take something from a league fixture since August, Di Matteo's side are squirrelling away points at quite a rate, but they cannot afford to start hibernating just yet.


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