Monday, March 26, 2012

HBA terrorises WBA as Toon bag Baggies boost

West Bromwich Albion 1 - 3 Newcastle Utd

A supremely clinical first-half performance from our three-man attack was enough to secure a sixth Premier League away win of the season. It was a display as stylish and cut-throat as last Sunday's had been workmanlike and uninspiring, as an HBA special sandwiched between two goals from Papiss Cisse exacted revenge on the Baggies for their pre-Christmas victory at St James' Park.

The Silver Fox named the same starting XI as against Norwich but tinkered with the formation, asking Perchinho to fill the left-back role, moving Spidermag into midfield and giving HBA the freedom to float around as part of a fluid front three. It was an undeniably bold approach against a side that had hammered the Mackems and then defeated Chelsea in their previous two matches at the Hawthorns, but one which paid handsome dividends almost immediately.

Demba Ba had already had an awkward shot tipped over by Ben Foster when, in the sixth minute, we took the lead. Spidermag's precise through-pass found HBA, who whipped a low cross across the six-yard box. Ba stretched and missed, but the perhaps-just-about-onside Cisse was on hand to ram home.

Our position improved even further six minutes later, courtesy of a lightning-quick counter-attack. Receiving the ball on the edge of his own area, HBA exchanged passes first with Dreamboat - back to his best - and then with Cisse before cutting inside his marker in the opposing box and planting a firm curler beyond Foster.

The Baggies may have been stunned but they hadn't quite lost all of their boing-boing. James Morrison flashed a shot wide with Tim Krul well beaten and was then denied a goal back by the linesman's flag, his supplier Marc-Antoine Fortune having strayed offside by a matter of inches.

However, they fell further behind just after the half-hour mark. HBA's blistering pace and tormenting skill was once again critical, as he carried the ball deep into enemy territory before seizing upon Ba's clever backheel and pulling the ball back for Cisse to pounce. Our £10m Senegalese marksman now has five goals in just six appearances - not quite Messi-like, but impressive nevertheless.

But were we giddy on what the Silver Fox later termed "champagne football"? No. Memories of surrendering a three-goal lead to the Baggies on the final day of last season were still sufficiently fresh to mean that nothing would be taken for granted - not least when we learned that Sideshow Bob had been forced off at half-time through injury (his replacement was Davide Santon, with Perchinho moving into the centre). And, sure enough, the home side were given encouragement early in the second period by a succession of corners and ultimately a goal, when a hopeful punt upfield resulted in catastrophic miscommunication between Krul and Mike Williamson and left substitute Shane Long to volley into an empty net.

Frustratingly, that came after we should have taken a four-goal lead, Cisse denied his hat-trick by Foster when clean through, and we had to withstand a brief Baggies barrage, Krul saving from Peter Odemwingie and Jonas Olsson heading wide. Even still, we continued to look deadly on the break, another scintillating box-to-box dribble from HBA concluding with a fine one-handed stop from Foster, Olsson frantically prodding the loose ball away and behind.

And that, pretty much, was that. HBA was granted the standing ovation he deserved for his finest performance to date in black and white (well, orange...), replaced in increasingly characteristic fashion by Big Lad, while Cisse succumbed to cramp and gave way to Shane Ferguson. The Baggies pressed without carrying any real threat - their cause not helped by an injury to Morrison that left them with ten men, all substitutions having been made - and we held firm to see out the remainder of the game with relative ease.

Perhaps it seems faintly ridiculous to even say it, but the win mathematically guaranteed our safety - the first objective of any club. It's a measure of how well we've done that we can boast about having secured our Premier League safety with eight games remaining, but also that all the talk is actually of Europe. Chelsea's goalless draw with Spurs means we're now level on points with the fifth-placed Blues, while the latest hilariously humiliating defeat for Liverpool leaves them eight points worse off than us. Beat the Scousers in next Sunday's home match and we should have sixth spot sewn up - with the possibility of finishing even higher.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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