Sunday 21 December ~
By common consent West Brom were the best team in the Championship last season. Manager Tony Mowbray rightly received acclaim for his declaration that he wanted his team to play football "the right way" foregoing the muscular approach of some of their promotion rivals. There was further praise for Mowbray during the close season when he insisted that the club would not break their wage ceiling when signing new players, or in trying to keep members of their promotion team who wanted improved contracts. One of the effects of that policy was that last season's top scorer Kevin Phillips ended up staying in the Championship, with Birmingham City. Six months on, Albion supporters may feel that they are witnessing a replay of the 2005-06 season. They have a much better manager than three years ago, when the hapless Bryan Robson was in charge, but the end result looks like being the same, if not slightly worse – Robson's side finished 19th while the current team go into today's match with Manchester City four points adrift at the bottom.
With the second-worst defence in the division, Albion have also scored four goals fewer than anyone else. Phillips may be 35 but he could still have been an effective player for a team in the bottom half of the Premier League. In his absence, Ishmael Miller had been the top scorer with a meagre three goals, but an injury against Portsmouth two weeks ago has ended his season. Even if Mowbray brings in a couple of strikers in the transfer window, they may suffer from lack of service – the midfield that cruised smoothly through the Championship simply doesn't look good enough to make an impression at the higher level.
Albion are now in dire need of a win to close the gap on the dozen clubs clustered above them, so there can be no better team for them to be facing today than Manchester City. Even without the flurry of signings they are expected to make in January the talent in Mark Hughes's squad ought to have secured a top half position. Instead there are growing rumours of factionalism at the club, with a group of players said to have had a meeting this week to discuss Hughes's team selections and the distinctly erratic contribution being made by Robinho. Failure to win at The Hawthorns today will mean that City will occupy the third relegation spot going into Christmas.
The owners in Abu Dhabi might have expected to be spending in January in pursuit of a Champions League push, instead even UEFA Cup qualification looks a remote prospect even if the defence is to be marshalled by Gianlugi Buffon on £250,000 a week. It would have been interesting to see what Tony Mowbray with his purist's outlook might have been able to achieve with a transfer budget even one tenth of that likely to be available to Mark Hughes in just over a week's time. Sadly we won't get to find out.