Going into the game I would’ve been happy to continue Albion’s good run of form under Tony Pulis. The Spurs game aside, Pulis has masterminded 10 points from seven games (West Ham included) and guided Albion to a mouth-watering quarter final clash against rivals Aston Villa.
In the days leading up to the game, Pulis had warned Albion faced a tough task to stay unbeaten throughout February against Champions League chasing Southampton. Pulis decided to stick with the same team that grinded out a point at Sunderland with Berahino and Morrison both overcoming injury scares.
One criticism of Pulis’ time at The Hawthorns is that Albion are often slow out of the blocks. But on Saturday’s Albion first half an hour was the best I’ve witnessed for some time. It helped with the early goal. Brunt fired the ball forward, Dawson headed down and Berahino lashed home an unstoppable volley into the top corner with his left peg. The goal was typical Pulis but executed expertly by Berahino.
The goal settled the Baggies who quickly got into a rhythm. Despite having Gardner and Morrison on both flanks, Albion spread the play expertly and pushed Southampton’s dangerous full backs back. Fletcher and Yacob were bossing midfield giving Albion a solid platform to start attack after attack.
After another eye catching move, the Baggies should’ve doubled their advantage. Brunt found Gardner with another precise long pass but the on rushing midfielder failed to control the ball as he rushed into the area. Gardner had another chance minutes later when Berahino fed Gardner but Ideye Brown got in his way and Southampton had the chance to clear.
Such was Albion’s dominance in the opening 25 minutes that Saints were forced into a tactical change. Southampton boss Ronald Koeman hauled off a defender for a forward as he swapped from 3-5-2 to 4-2-3-1.
The switch gave Southampton a foothold in the game with Sadio Mane blasting two efforts over the bar.
After the break
The game was more even in the second half. Albion were less expansive and remained solid in middle with Fletcher in particular controlling things. Albion’s captain was a calming influence with his composure in possession just what the Baggies needed as the Saints pushed for an equaliser.
Albion were forced into a change in the 56th minute when Berahino went down under a tangle of legs and immediately called to be subbed. Youssouf Mulumbu slotted into midfield as Pulis adopted a five-man midfield.
The substitution helped the Saints with Brown Ideye unable to get hold of the ball up front on his own. Southampton came more into the game. Bertrand got beyond Dawson and fired across for Pelle to tap in. Fortunately for Albion he was unable to make any meaningful connection and Brunt cleared for a corner.
Fletcher could’ve doubled Albion’s advantage in the 80th minute when the ball fell kindly after a free kick but the former Manchester United man blasted high into the Birmingham Road End.
Albion were dealt another blow as the clock ticked down when Ideye fell under a challenge and was forced to hobble off – leaving Albion strikerless. Stephane Sessegnon replaced the forward. ‘Sess’ was straight into the action but was booked for a terrible dive minutes after coming on.
This was probably Albion’s finest league win under Pulis. The football for the first 30 minutes was some of the best I’ve seen in seasons. Although the Baggies scored from a long-ball, Albion’s movement and manipulation of the ball inside the first 25 minutes was superb. Had Koeman not changed Southampton’s shape, Albion would’ve easily added to their one goal.
The victory moved Albion on to 30 points and within touching distance of survival. More importantly, it gave the club a massive boost ahead of a huge week of derby fixtures against the Villa. If Albion can recreate their opening 30 minutes at Villa Park we’ll come away winners. However, the injuries to Berahino and Ideye mean the Baggies could travel to Witton without any recognised strikers. Anichebe is back in training but wouldn’t be fit enough to start. Fingers crossed the substitutions of Berahino and Ideye were more precaution than necessity.
COME ON YOU BAGGIES!
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