Can Aston Villa ensure top flight survival stays in their hands?

At the start of February, West Brom manager Roy Hodgson was in Alex McLeish’s shoes – his team were too close to the bottom of the Premier League table for comfort, with a Midlands derby at Wolves lined-up next. The Baggies won that game 5-1 and without any cup distractions they have quietly strung good results together over eleven games which has helped move them up into the top half following last Sunday’s 1-0 win at Liverpool. They have also won three of their last four as well as four of their last five at home.

McLeish’s Aston Villa take on Hodgson’s team at the Hawthorns this afternoon, four days after they were dragged into relegation contention by a 2-1 home defeat by Bolton Wanderers. Within a minute of going in front just after the hour mark, the visitors drew level with a penalty before going in front themselves a minute later. Afterwards McLeish said: “We just have to find the back of the net more regularly and at the same time I am disappointed with the soft goals we conceded.”

The only stat McLeish can take heart from is the fact West Brom, along with Villa and relegated Wolves, have scored the least number of goals at home this season, though of course West Brom’s poor form at home in the first half of the season contributed to that. They’ve scored 11 goals in their most recent six home games including four against Sunderland and three against Blackburn Rovers. Meanwhile Villa have suffered heavy defeats at both Arsenal and Manchester United and drawn at Wigan Athletic and Blackburn. Those points might prove their saviour in the end, but while another point today mightn’t be a total disaster (depending on results elsewhere) they are badly in need of a win from somewhere.


Villa must fight for McLeish and win at Wigan

None of the three Midlands clubs in the Premier League can confidently say they will be in the top flight next season, and the worst off currently, 18th placed Wolves have just sacked their manager after 25 games. 

When after 12 games Aston Villa had drawn six, not many expected their position to get worse than that. But it has, and they are now in desperate need of a result like West Brom’s win at Wolves a couple of weeks ago, which marked the end of Mick McCarthy’s time in charge at Molineux.

Villa aren’t used to relegation battles, even if they see the seven point gap between themselves and QPR as a safety net. Earlier this month they had needed to come back from 2-0 down at home to the London club, otherwise the gap now would be just four points.

Bottom of the table Wigan Athletic, who have only won once at home in the league this season, host Villa tomorrow, buoyed by taking three points away at rivals Bolton Wanderers. Villa lost at Newcastle United earlier this month – despite getting back on level terms from a goal behind, that wasn’t enough in the end to earn a point - and after the game manager Alex McLeish had called on his players to show more effort. Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia were among the players who were dropped by the Scot for their next game.

After Stoke City made a great start to their winter programme they’ve been on a downward spiral since they took a point from Liverpool last month. Four consecutive league defeats have followed and going two goals behind and eventually losing 2-1 at Fulham in the last of them was an opportunity missed to secure a relatively safe domestic position before the European knockout stages began.  

After missing out on further progress in the Europa League - they had finished runners-up in their group last year to make the last 32 - they now turn their attention back to the Premier League this Sunday. Swansea City will be at the Britannia having had a rest while their hosts played three times, against Spanish giants Valencia twice and Crawley Town in the FA Cup last weekend. 

Having gained promotion last season, Swansea’s current mid-table Premier League position, above both Fulham and Stoke on goal difference, has been down largely to their home form. However, they began the month coming from behind to win at West Brom, so Potters boss Tony Pulis may need to accept a point, which would at least end their poor recent run.


Spoils shared as West Brom come back to frustrate Fulham

Fulham’s 100% record at home during January – which had followed that 5-0 defeat to Manchester United at Craven Cottage over Christmas – was brought to an end on the first day of February. It would be an opportunity missed by the Londoners to move into the top half of the Premier League table on goal difference.

In their previous two home games, against Arsenal and Newcastle United, Martin Jol’s team had conceded the first goal, but had come back to take all three points on both occasions. Whether or not the cold evening conditions played a part last night, or not, this was no classic. But it was Roy Hodgson who would have left the far happier of the two managers, after his team came from behind after a goalless first half – which had followed a 0-0 draw back at the Hawthorns in September - to earn a point here. Now the Baggies just need to turn their home form around.

Afterwards, Hodgson’s counterpart, Jol said: “You need a lot of patience against West Brom because they try to screen and don’t give you a lot of space.” Next up they face the seemingly impossible task of getting any return back from a visit to Manchester City, this Saturday.


Will it be a happy return to the Cottage for Hodgson?

A point currently separates Roy Hodgson’s current club West Brom and one of his former clubs, Fulham, who slipped from 12th place in the table to 14th place after last night’s Premier League fixtures. Both suffered exits from the FA Cup last weekend.

Fulham who go to Manchester City this Saturday, and Bobby Zamora’s QPR at the end of the month, did take a point back to west London from trips to Sunderland, Arsenal, Chelsea and Norwich in the latter part of 2011, but have so far still only won once away from home this season. In contrast, West Brom have only won on two occasions at the Hawthorns in this Premier League campaign, and have dropped a massive 14 points there from the 15 most recently up for grabs (i.e. four defeats and a draw). 

Neither team, of course, will have any opportunity to alter that form when the two sides meet at Craven Cottage tonight - The reverse fixture ended in a goalless draw on September 24th – To quote the BBC website ‘Fulham have won four of their last five home league matches, while West Brom have won three of their last four league games on the road.’

It’s impossible to predict, which is why it could be a fascinating clash.


Liverpool hold Stoke while West Brom fluff their lines again

Prior to this game Liverpool had only suffered four defeats. And now this was their third goalless draw – They may have failed to score in a third of their Premier League games this campaign but they also haven’t scored in any of the games they’ve lost –  Therefore they may lack firepower but at least every goal which they have scored has counted towards points, which explains their league position just outside of the top four.

The Reds had been forced into making changes – They were without injured pair Daniel Agger and Jay Spearing - while forwards Craig Bellamy and Andy Carroll, who had both started the Carling Cup semi-final first leg in midweek, were only named on the bench.

After this latest result, manager Kenny Dalglish said:  “The responsibility was on us to be more imaginative and to break them down and we didn’t manage to do it.

“The couple of opportunities we got we didn’t take and in a game like that [when the opposition's aim is to earn a draw] you have to take them.”

2012 has begun brightly for Stoke City who arrived at Anfield after two consecutive away wins, in which they’d scored two goals in the first half at both Blackburn Rovers and Gillingham.

In contrast West Brom went down to their third league defeat of the year, at home to Norwich City yesterday. The visitors broke the deadlock at the end of the first half, then shortly after the hour mark manager Roy Hodgson made a double substitution, which was closely followed by an equalising goal from the penalty spot. But the Baggies couldn’t add a winner to their one goal in four league games. Instead the opposition scored twice at the Hawthorns for the second consecutive Saturday.

“We didn’t play well in the first half, just a brief spell at the end of the first half when they scored their goal,” said Hodgson after the game.

“We had to rally the troops [at half time] and we showed more endeavour but we got caught on a similar counter-attack, as we did with the first goal.

“It feels harsh for us. Their keeper made some good saves, we had a couple of efforts cleared off the line yet our goalkeeper wasn’t involved that much. That’s football. You have to get on with it.”


Roy Hodgson faces a tough end to his first year at Albion

The seven clubs between 9th and 15th in the Premier League table are only three points apart after 20 games (before tonight’s one re-scheduled fixture). Each one progressed to the fourth round of the FA Cup last weekend, the draw for which paired amongst its 16 ties (scheduled for later in the month) West Brom (15th in the league) at home to Norwich City (9th in the league), a repeat of the league fixture coming up this weekend.

Meanwhile, QPR, one of three Premier League clubs who are not only currently adrift in the bottom five, but also have to replay their FA Cup third round tie against lower league opposition, sacked their manager by the end of the weekend. Liverpool sacked Roy Hodgson on the same date 12 months ago. 

Since Hodgon’s latest club West Brom took a point at Loftus Road at the beginning of December, the Baggies in between three defeats have enjoyed a run of three games unbeaten which included two wins away from home and a point against league leaders Manchester City at the Hawthorns.

However, had the referee’s assistant not wrongly called what would have been a second QPR goal offside when the home side led 1-0, the league table based on a different outcome in that game alone would have left the two teams in the reverse league positions to where they stand now. It might even have saved Neil Warnock’s job – although the newly promoted club would still only have a pair of home wins – the same as West Brom.

As it does stand, West Brom and QPR are the only teams in the Premier League still in single figures for league goals scored at home. 

It might be said that West Brom need to do the double over Norwich in the league and then complete the hat-trick by knocking them out the cup. Because looking further ahead at the fixture list, Hodgson could mark his first anniversary with a live televised derby at Wolves when the pressure to win would be huge.


West Brom will need to bounce straight back after latest setback

At the end of a week when West Brom manager Roy Hodgson remarked how he considered Wigan Athletic’s summer bid for striker Peter Odemwingie to be “a little bit like West Brom trying to sign Lionel Messi”, Wigan recorded a second consecutive win on the road, coming from behind to win 2-1 at West Brom on Saturday. 

The Latics had fallen to eight consecutive league defeats since the end of August, before their 3-3 draw with Blackburn at the DW Stadium last month ended that rut. The two goals Wigan scored here maintained West Brom’s record of conceding two league goals per game over their last six matches.

The Baggies have managed to score in every one of their last four league games, but across the entire campaign they have scored on average fewer than a goal per game, and they were ahead for only four first half minutes on Saturday.

Youssouf Mulumbu’s failed clearance inside his own penalty area was described by Roy Hodgson as a “monumental error”. And by the time Albion conceded a penalty at The Hawthorns for the fourth consecutive game, they found themselves behind as a consequence of that for the first time since Liverpool took the lead here in October. “Situations more than avoidable” was how Hodgson described this affliction currently affecting Albion’s season. 

Despite this result marking their fourth defeat in six matches Hodgson defended his team’s performance against the resiliance Wigan showed to hold onto their lead. Based on West Brom’s results so far this month their next opportunity to address this current slide has taken on a greater significance.


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