Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City are not only the Championship’s two highest-scoring teams with a combined 102 goals, they played out a seven-goal thriller in August’s reverse fixture.
This clash at the Hawthorns between the two promotion contenders is therefore the most attractive game of the Championship weekend.
In many ways, West Brom’s 4-3 victory at Carrow Road five months ago typifies their season to date.
Darren Moore’s side came under pressure for long spells in Norfolk but, because they were so productive once they got into the final third, they came away with the victory.
🧐 The #SkyBetChampionship Manager of the Month nominations are here.
🇦🇷 Marcelo Bielsa – @LUFC
🔴 Lee Johnson – @BristolCity
📈 Darren Moore – @WBA
✅ Who is your winner?
— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) January 10, 2019
In that sense, Albion’s squad is somewhat top-heavy.
Their front-line oozes Premier League quality, with Harvey Barnes, Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle netting a combined 35 goals this season.
Loanee Barnes is exciting, two-footed and can breeze past opponents with effervescent ease; he has both the intelligence to pick out teammates and the ability to curl shots home with real finesse.
Gayle, an instinctive finisher, has adjusted surprisingly well to playing on the right of a front-three, given licence to play high up the pitch and find back-post openings.
Because Barnes and Gayle push high up, Rodriguez has had to graft deeper but that has not compromised his attacking threat, because it has allowed him to find gaps just in front of the opposition centre-backs, while his teammates make penetrating runs from deep.
One of those players is Matt Phillips, who is on paper on the right of a midfield three but in practice acts as a right-winger as usual; the former QPR man has drilled 53 accurate crosses, which is the fourth-most in the Championship.
When momentum swings West Brom’s way, therefore, they can be very difficult to stop, evidenced by the fact that they have scored more than one goal within a 15-minute period on 14 occasions this term.
And yet, there are reasons why momentum only swings their way for short bursts, rather than for sustained spells: that comes down to issues further back.
With bright talents like Sam Field and Rekeem Harper not getting a look-in under Darren Moore, their four central midfield options excluding Phillips – Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Chris Brunt and James Morrison – have an average age of 33 and thus lack the stamina to influence games for prolonged periods.
The defence, meanwhile, does not build-up play with too much comfort due to the unsuitability of options available at centre-back and right-back; although Mason Holgate’s arrival on loan could help.
Daniel Farke’s side should have some joy going forward, especially against a side that have only kept league clean sheets against Millwall, Rotherham and Wigan.
The Canaries possess the Championship’s joint-third top goalscorer in Teemu Pukki, who has scored 15 goals, of which six have come in the last 15 minutes of matches – and the Fin is also one of the division’s most intelligent forwards.
He picks up pockets of space just in front of the opposition’s defence and loves to link-up with his teammates, such as Todd Cantwell.
The latter put in an impressive performance in last week’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Portsmouth; despite the man disadvantage, he was always brave in possession and made plenty of bursts between the lines.
Norwich’s attacking threat may be improved further by the anticipated return to fitness of left-back Jamal Lewis.
Well, some brilliant news all-round for injuries. Providing all come off with no knocks tomorrow, here’s my lineup for WBA.
Tettey/TT defensively sound, Tom replicates Mo’s ability to control the game, the missing link recently.
— cam (@_cxmdoran_) January 4, 2019
Farke has recently improvised with utility man Ben Godfrey at left-back and while the former Shrewsbury loanee scored from that position against Derby, he is more natural in central defence or midfield.
The supremely-talented Lewis, along with right-sided counter-part Max Aarons, gives the team plenty of width; exciting attacking midfielder Emiliano Buendia should also be fit enough to make the match-day squad.
Farke’s midfield options are bolstered further by the return of Kenny McLean, who produced an encouraging display last week, completing 90 minutes for the first time since being part of the Aberdeen side that won 1-0 at Celtic.
McLean offers quality from set pieces, drive from open play and represents a slightly more dynamic version of Moritz Leitner, a deep-lying playmaker who is out for the month with an ankle ligament damage.
The midfielder could be paired with fit again stalwart Alex Tettey, a much-needed experienced head in an otherwise youthful squad.
With Christoph Zimmermann and Grant Hanley suspended, Norwich continue to struggle for stability at centre-back and for that reason, it would be unwise to show too much confidence in a defence that has shipped eight in three.
However, they do look slightly underrated for this clash, so we’re backing them to score at least twice, as they have done eight of their last 11 league games, at the Hawthorns.
Norwich to score Over 1.5 goals – 29/20
Read Gabriel’s League One Preview here.