Wayne Rooney and Manchester United vs. WBA earlier in the season at Old Trafford.
Manchester United travel to WBA in the early kick off hoping to avenge the 2-1 defeat at the hands of their west Midlands opponents earlier in the season. United haven’t played since the disastrous 2-0 defeat away at Greek Champions Olympiakos, which was even worse than the 1-0 defeat away at Lille in 2005, a defeat generally considered the ‘Massimo Taibi benchmark’ of European defeats.
The Hawthorns was the scene of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last match in charge, an epic 5-5 draw – the first of its kind in the Premier League. Fast forward ten months and United are out of the title race, out of both domestic cups and have it all to do in the return leg of the European Cup last 16. David Moyes wrote a letter to Manchester United season ticket holders praising the support from the fans and will no doubt be under pressure yet again to try and close the enormous gap on Manchester City in fourth spot.
Phil Jones (hip), Jonny Evans (calf) and Nani (hamstring) are all doubtful for the visitors, whilst Chris Brunt and James Morrison, who were both injured on international duty, face a late fitness test for the home side.
We are lucky to be joined by Warren Stephens who blogs over at Express and Star. You can follow Stephen on Twitter here – @warren_stephens. Warren is usually in the depths of a hangover midway through a stag do when he answers some questions for us.
We’re glad, especially for him, that he was stone cold sober when discussing Pepe Mel, Anelka’s quenelle and will the Baggies stay up this season. Having said that, maybe he should have been on the booze!
1) How would you sum up WBA’s season so far?
It seems to be degenerating from disappointing to catastrophic. In recent seasons we’d become renowned for being a well-run football club, the prototype to which many Football League sides aspired, yet a catalogue of poor decisions seems to have thrust us into the midst of a relegation battle.
Last summer we lost Romelu Lukaku back to his parent club, Chelsea and sold Peter Odemwingie to Cardiff. Between them they were worth around 25 goals a season. To cut a long story short, we haven’t replaced them and have struggled to break teams down.
We lost scouting guru extraordinaire, Dan Ashworth, to the FA. His replacement was reportedly being undermined by the hiring of a Director of Technical Performance, who recommended the signings of a number of players who’ve under-performed and liked giving impromptu and unwelcome team talks; he was subsequently sacked after 6 months.
We fired Steve Clarke, some would argue prematurely, took an age to replace him then, if reports are to be believed, are wobbling over whether his successor is the right man.
Throw in the Anelka saga and, as James Morrison was quoted as saying this week, “it feels like a soap opera”.
2) Is Pepe Mel the right man to take you forward?
I’m honestly not sure. Our team’s functioned well for the most of the last two or three seasons, as a predominantly deep and compact side who are effective on the counter. It’s set up for that: our back four is painfully slow but good in the air, we’ve got excellent ball-winning midfielders and we did have pace on the break.
Pepe Mel’s ethos seems to be about pressing high a la Bayern Munich, Barcelona or the Athletic Bilbao team you faced in the Europa League a couple of years back. It sounds good in principle, but it’ll take time and a turnover of players to achieve it; time, unfortunately, is something we don’t have.
From a tactical and continuity point of view, I think you can add it to the list of questionable decisions we’ve made. I’d say most fans feel for Mel, none of this mess is his doing, we just need to get over the finishing line and then let him build a team that can play his style of football.
3) Who will be the three teams to get relegated?
Tough question. Cardiff, Fulham (purely because I think they’ll run out of games) and Norwich. Not including us is more based on not being able to contemplate that scenario rather than through genuine belief. Norwich’s last four games are horrendous too.
How Stoke aren’t down there I’ll never know, they were dire. I also live in hope that somebody will kidnap Christian Benteke for the duration of a football season and Benteke FC will be thrust through the trap door.
4) I know it’s a sensitive issue, but what are your thoughts on the actions of Anelka and his ban?
Whatever his intentions, Anelka was profoundly stupid to affiliate himself with a man and gesture of such controversy. In that respect, he deserves a punishment. My only gripe, is that by no means is Anelka the first person to do this: Samir Nasri and Mamadou Sakho have both been pictured doing the same thing yet neither was castigated in the same way.
When it first happened, Albion’s response was to dither – another poor decision – and before you knew it, media figures, celebrities, MPs were throwing their tuppence in. Even the club’s official sponsor joined in, who I won’t dignify by mentioning their name. Their sponsorship contract was expiring at the end of the season anyway, yet they spied an opportunity to court some publicity by releasing a statement to that effect, arguably as morally bankrupt as what they were supposedly opposing.
His absence will be no great loss on the pitch, but Albion certainly found themselves central to a controversy they’d rather not be.
5) What have you made of Manchester United and in particular David Moyes? Is he the right man to replace Fergie?
Similar to the Mel situation I mentioned above, I can’t see that Moyes is a natural successor to SIr Alex, their footballing philosophies seem so different, will Moyes ever preach the expansive, entertaining, cavalier style we’re so used to seeing? It sounds like there’s a bit of doubt in your dressing room too which isn’t a good sign.
6) You beat United earlier in the season; confident that history can repeat itself?
Not particularly. However badly United are playing, when you’re up against the likes of Mata, Van Persie and Rooney, you know that, to some extent, you’re not really in control of the outcome of the game. Like at Old Trafford, we’ll need multiple factors to come together in tandem, a performance from you like the one at Olympiakos would help!
Interestingly though, we’ve faired better against the better teams. Neither Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Everton have left the Hawthorns with three points this season.
7) Who has been your best and worst performer of the season?
Surprisingly, there’s not a long list of candidates for best performer! I’d say Youssouf Mulumbu, who has been our outstanding player for a few years. Even when not at his mercurial best, he’s getting his tackles in and breaking up play all over the pitch. It amazes me that nobody’s tried to take him off us before now.
Worst – where do I start?! I’d be tempted to go with poor Liam Ridgewell. Originally signed as a defending defender, he finds himself being asked to play as a modern full-back a la Patrice Evra. Unfortunately he’s got the pace of a turtle and I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s been skinned one-on-one this season. His confidence looks shot. Sadly, and amazingly, his so-called understudy Goran Popov would seem to be in a worse mental state, so much so that we tried to loan him out last month despite having no other left-backs (he’s already on loan to us, it was blocked by the Premier League) and he’s effectively disappeared from the first-team squad.
Anelka’s been a big let down. In truth, too many of them have under-performed.
8) Your last win in the league was on New Years Day against Newcastle – why have you struggled so much this year?
As I mentioned earlier, we don’t look like scoring goals. The core of the side – Ben Foster, Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson, Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob – is still better than a lot of the teams around us I’d say, these players were a big part of successes in recent seasons.
I’ve just lost count of the number of games where we’ve wrestled some degree of control yet failed to work the opposition keeper enough and dropped points we shouldn’t have. We’ve become dysfunctional and drawn too many games we would’ve won in previous seasons.
It’s also said that when you’re out of form, decisions go against you. We had a period before Christmas where around half a dozen penalty decisions went against us, you might remember the dodgy last minute award at Chelsea being one of them. I guess you could argue that Steve Clarke might still have a job had they not done.
9) Who has been the best player you’ve seen in the Premier League this season?
This won’t be popular, but it has to be Luis Suarez. We didn’t do a lot wrong at Anfield, probably not too dissimilar to our start at Old Trafford, yet were 2-0 down after 20 minutes, purely through his genius. We went on to lose 4-1, Suarez scored a hat-trick.
10) Who is the greatest Albion player of all time and give us your favourite terrace song.
You’re asking the wrong person, we haven’t won any major trophies in my lifetime! Older supporters will mention Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Jeff Astle, Willie Johnstone, Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown and perhaps even a young Bryan Robson, who I’m sure many of your supporters will know well.
In terms of chants, there’s not been much for us to sing about this season! The ‘boing boing’ used to be a great experience on the old terraces. I’d take a bland old ‘we are staying up’ at around 2.30pm on Saturday!