West Bromwich Albion’s fairy tale start to this season’s English Premier League campaign continued in this week’s Saturday lunchtime fixture as they overpowered Sunderland 4–2 at the Stadium of Light. The Baggies moved into third place ahead of Chelsea’s clash with Manchester City on Sunday.
The Sunderland–West Brom fixture generally provides a few goals and this one did not disappoint. The home side fought hard, especially in the second half, but West Brom looked every bit like a team that is worthy of holding down a top-four finish.
West Brom has certainly proved to be the surprise packet of the Premier League this season. Roy Hodgson’s impressive stint as manger saw the club thrust aside the specter of relegation and achieve a respectable 10th place in last season’s final league table.
That good work at the Hawthorns was certainly a factor in Hodgson being offered the England job. Perhaps being somewhat unfair to current manager Steve Clarke, many pundits were expecting the Baggies to slide back down with the departure of Hodgson, but that has not happened.
Sunderland finished in 13th position last season, only three places below West Brom, but when one remembers how Martin O’Neill’s reign at the Stadium of Light began with such optimism and promise, that finish was something of a disappointing conclusion to the season for the Black Cats.
West Brom started this match unbeaten in their last five Premier League meetings with Sunderland, having won four and drawn one. Moreover, the Wearside club has won just one of their last eight Premier League home games and scored only three Premier League home goals this season—the worst record in the division.
Despite that abysmal record, Sunderland’s victory against Fulham last weekend was a source of confidence, even though it was only their second win in 19 Premier League games.
Former Manchester United and England defender Wes Brown is likely to be out for some time with a knee problem and so Martin O’Neill picked an unchanged side.
Gareth McAuley was back at the heart of the West Brom defense after missing the win over Chelsea with a hamstring injury. Skipper Steve Brunt was also fit enough to return.
Youssouf Mulumbu was out of contention so James Morrison would move to a more central role in midfield. Boaz Myhill continued to deputize for Ben Foster who has a groin problem that may yet require surgery.
Baggies Take Control
The visitors started in confident manner befitting their elevated position on the ladder. Stroking passes around with authority for the first quarter of an hour, they always seemed to be first to those 50–50 balls.
Yet against the run of play, it was Sunderland who came closest to breaking the deadlock on 18 minutes when an attempt from Stephane Sessegnon was scrambled round the post by Myhill. Sessegnon was in the thick of it again seven minutes later when he again tested the West Brom keeper with an excellent twisting header from a curling Seb Larsson free kick.
In fact notwithstanding the Baggies tidy approach play, Simon Mignolet in the Sunderland goal had not had a shot to save. But on the half hour mark, he found himself picking the ball out of the back of the net having been beaten at full stretch by an absolute screamer from the weaker left foot of Zoltan Gera.
With a minute to go before half time a terrible blunder from Mignolet handed West Brom a second. The Belgian fumbled an innocuous roller of a shot and Shane Long, following in, pounced and walked the ball into the empty net.
Steve Clarke’s team had certainly looked the better side in the first half, but were rather flattered by a two-goal lead. Myhill made sure that lead was preserved when he punched away a Craig Gardener free kick that dipped and served wickedly on the stroke of half time.
Sunderland Fights Back But West Brom Remain Resolute
As expected, Sunderland took the game to West Brom at the start of the second period, but the visitors continued to look assured in possession and dangerous on the break.
With 20 minutes remaining, Peter Odemwingie was replaced by Marc-Antoine Fortune, while fellow attacker Shane Long made way for Romelu Lukaku.
However, Fortune was in the action at the wrong end of the pitch as a Craig Gardner free kick glanced off his head and out of Myhill’s reach to put the Black Cats back in the game.
Yet it was not long before the two-goal cushion was restored. A typical forward’s tackle by Adam Johnson on Liam Ridgewell in the Sunderland area left referee Mike Dean with no alternative but to award a penalty.
Lukaku gave Mignolet no chance with a crisply struck spot kick.
Sunderland was not about to throw in the towel and Johnson made amends by winning a corner, which he took himself. His testing outswinger found the ubiquitous Steven Fletcher whose header was too hot to handle for Myhill. The ball broke to Sessegnon who gleefully lashed it home.
Sunderland might even have snatched a point in injury time but a Cuellar header was well saved by Myhill. West Brom finally made the points safe right at the death with a goal from Fortune after a typical Baggies breakaway.
It was no more than the club from the Hawthorns deserved. Indeed, it was the first time they had won four top-flight matches in succession since Ron Atkinson was in charge way back in 1980.
Time will only tell how long the fairytale lasts for Clarke’s men. The Premier League season is a long 38 games, but West Brom have exceeded all expectations with an 8–2–3 record for 26 points and third place after 13 games.
Sunderland sits on 12 points, just three above the relegation zone having won one of five home matches this season.
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