After Romelu Lukaku came on for the last ten minutes at Anfield to terrorise Liverpool, it was no surprise the big Belgium striker was recalled to the starting XI.
Graham Dorrans – despite a hard working display against the Reds – was the unlucky man to lose his place as Clarke opted for a traditional 4-4-2 formation. Want-away striker Peter Odemwingie returned to the match day squad for the first time since his deadline day transfer saga. His return was greeted by a mixed reception. Some – strangely – decided to give him a standing ovation, others booed and the majority chose to ignore him.
I’m always a little unsure of how well we’re going to play when we line up with a four-man midfield. In previous seasons we’ve tried this formation before with little effect. However, this season – and this side – is different. The axis in the middle of Yacob and Mulumbu provide both protection to the defence and support to the attack. It worked perfectly against the Black Cats.
The opening stages saw Albion adapt to their new formation – which saw James Morrison on the right. Much like when Clarke plays a 4-5-1 shape, the wide men – this time Brunt and Mozza – play narrow to allow our fullbacks to overlap. It worked well on Sunday with Ridgewell and Reid supporting the midfield well and playing some inviting crosses into the box.
It was one of these crosses from Ridgewell which saw Albion nearly open the scoring. Brunt played in Ridgewell after drawing his marker in field. The defender whipped in a cross which found the head of Lukaku. His header was only a couple of yards over the top corner.
Sunderland hit back with an attack of their own which saw ex-Dingle Steven Fletcher hit the post before blazing over after Danny Graham was denied at close range by Ben Foster. The Albion stopper almost gifted the Black Cats the lead when he fumbled a corner from the right. From my seat in the Birmingham Road, it looked as if he had carried the ball into his own net. Thankfully the referee’s assistant kept his flag down.
Albion’s attacks down the left were working well. Sunderland had picked Sebastian Sessegnon and Craig Gardner down the right. Both are better going forward than the other way. Albion exploited this in the first half. Brunt again found Ridgewell who sent in another excellent cross to find Youssouf Mulumbu unmarked and six yards out. Somehow Mulumbu nodded wide when it seemed easier to score.
The Baggies were playing well and moving the ball around neatly. Long and Lukaku were working well together up front and the back four seemed comfortable enough. Albion should’ve gone ahead on the half hour mark. Morrison did well to poke the ball through to Lukaku despite being fouled by Larsson. The Belgium striker calmly passed the ball around Mignolet. However, referee Roger East had failed to play the ‘advantage’ and called for the foul on Morrison. It was a very poor piece of referring on an afternoon when East seemed to get the majority of the decisions wrong.
One decision he did get right was to award Albion a spot kick five minutes later. Brunt and Ridgewell again combined down the left. The defender swung over another cross but the ball was blocked by Gardner’s out-stretched arm. Penalty! Lukaku grabbed the ball and sent his countryman the wrong way. Albion 1-0 up.
Lukaku was having his best game in an Albion shirt. The four man midfield were regularly able to find the striker with a ball to feet; Bramble and O’Shea had little answer against the powerhouse as he was able to bring others into play. It was the 19-year-old’s pace and power which almost resulted in a second. A quick throw from Foster found the striker on the half way line. Larsson was easily given the hand off as Lukaku charged down on goal. Three Sunderland defenders were needed to snuff out the one man counter attack.
After the break
Sunderland had the first opportunity of the second half when Mulumbu had to be alert on the line to prevent Sessegnon levelling the scores from the corner. Normal service was soon to be restored. Brunt robbed Larsson in the middle and found Lukaku. Mignolet pulled off the save at full stretch as Lukaku fired in a rocket from 18-yards.
Despite the one way traffic, Clarke called the changes just after the hour mark. Shane Long was replaced by Graham Dorrans as Albion reverted to a 4-5-1 formation with Morrison the man to support the rampaging Lukaku. After Albion had played so well, I was surprised Clarke decided to switch shape.
Although it didn’t really seem to affect Albion’s play too much. A second goal almost came when Morrison was denied by a Bramble tackle at the near post after good play by Dorrans.
The second goal finally came with 15 minutes remaining. Just like the first half, Foster collected the ball and immediately looked for Lukaku. His long throw was initially mis-controlled by the forward but it allowed him to pull wide and avoid O’Shea desperate lunge. His touch allowed Bramble to cover but the fumbling defender’s back pass allowed Lukaku to continue his run and Mignolet could only smash the ball against the on-rushing striker’s legs. The ball shot into the back of the unguarded Birmingham Road net. If ever there was an example of never giving up this was it.
The game seemed to be over. But, in true Albion fashion, Sunderland pulled a goal back to ensure a nervy finish. McClean turned Reid before firing in a low cross. Olsson turned the ball away but only into the path of Sessegnon who curled the ball into the far corner.
Then came the moment the whole of the footballing community in England was waiting for: the return of the car park king Peter Odemwingie. It was a mixed reception to say the least. Although not as bad as I had expected. I’m glad the majority of Albion fans saw sense and decided against booing him. The striker almost made the boo-boys eat their words seconds after coming on to the pitch. After collecting the ball in the area, Odemwingie fired an effort only inches wide of the far post.
The onslaught I was expecting from Sunderland never really materialised. Foster had to be alert to smother a Vaughan shot after he had fumbled. Although the Black Cats should’ve equalised with the last kick of the game. Bramble out jumped Ridgewell to find McClean unmarked six yards out. But the Irish man misjudged the ball and poked it high into the Smethwick End. An equaliser would’ve been unjust after such a dominant performance.
This was the Albion of old. The Baggies before the dreaded Christmas period. Before the Yacob and Mulumbu partnership was broken up by injury and international commitments. Albion controlled large periods of the game and were spearheaded by the unplayable Romelu Lukaku. It’s amazing to think he’s only 19 years old. How good is he going to be when he’s 25? Sunderland’s defenders simply had no answer of how to play the on loan Chelsea man. When they came tight to them he held them off and played others into the game. When they sat off he played the ball past them and used his pace to out run them. If only we could afford him. Let’s hope he persuades Chelsea he’d be better off at The Hawthorns next season.
The victory moved Albion back up to seventh in the league and onto the magical 40 point mark. All before the end of February. Despite the blip over the last two months, Saturday’s performance again showed that when Albion are able to pick their best players we’re a match for anybody at home in this league.
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