It’s not a great time to be an Albion fan: we’re already relegated, Allardyce is now leaving and so are a handful of our most talented and most beloved players.
But as Sunday afternoon’s Premier League outing versus Leeds United could be our last in the top-flight for the foreseeable future, we can only hope the Baggies bookend a dismal chapter in the club’s recent history by picking up all three points at Elland Road.
Not too long ago there were whispers of Allardyce masterminding the greatest of all escapes, but in the wake of Wednesday night’s dead rubber 3-1 defeat to West Ham, Allardyce admitted he no longer had the heart to lead his side through an exhausting, and often brutal, Championship campaign.
This final game has now become the ideal shop window for those on the fringes of our current playing squad. There is no better perfect opportunity for rotational players like Diangana and Grant to leave their mark and impress Allardyce’s successor, whoever that may be.
Leeds United, as Albion are all too aware, are formidable opponents. The humiliating 5-0 drubbing back in December exposed the ever-widening chasm between the two sides who achieved automatic promotion back to the Premier League together only five months earlier.
Fast forward to the end of May, Leeds sit in tenth with a realistic chance of climbing as high as eighth if they can beat Albion. Three consecutive league wins vs Spurs (3-1), Burnley (0-4) and Southampton (2-0) has meant no other side outside the current top six has won more games than Leeds this season (17).
Albion, meanwhile, could rise as high as 18th if they could pull off an upset win and other results go their way. Considering the Baggies are winless in six, this may be unlikely. The return of Leeds United home fans may also advantage the home side, although I’m sure Big Sam would love nothing more than to end his stint as Albion boss by raining on Bielsa’s end of season parade.
For his final game Allardyce only has one new injury concern to deal with but it is an unfortunate one. Ivanovic (hamstring) and Snodgrass (back) continue to miss out through injury, as could the talismanic Matheus Pereira (knock). Allardyce reported that he is touch and go for what will be his final performance in a West Brom jersey.
Pereira’s goal straight from a corner was our only goal from Wednesday night, and it further highlighted the gulf in class between him and the rest of our squad.
I imagine Big Sam may continue to favour Robson-Kanu at striker in order to replace Pereira’s team leading 11 goals, although with the Welsh international’s contract expiring over the summer I believe we could see Karlan Grant begin up top in an effort to offer him first team football ahead of next season.
Pereira’s injury suggests Diangana and Robinson could flank Grant, with Gallagher, Yokuslu and Phillips returning as a midfield three after their valiant performance against Liverpool. Maitland-Niles may also feature in place of any of those three, his presence has improved West Brom this season.
Defensively this side picks itself, it looks as though it will be an unchanged back four from the side that took on West Ham. Johnstone looks set for his final Albion game after an eye-catching season. Dara O’Shea could force himself into starting contention, as could academy youngsters Toby King and Taylor Gardner-Hickman who have appeared on the bench recently.
Bielsa is world renowned for his eccentric coaching style and his unique footballing philosophies but I don’t see him springing many selection surprises upon us given how in-form and how dominant his side has been in recent weeks.
He does have some injuries to contend with: Costa (back), Forshaw (hip), Koch (personal reasons), Llorente (knock) and Klich (personal reasons) are all unavailable. But Leeds have strength in depth. Harrison, Raphinha, Bamford and Rodrigo have all been in great touch and should all start. Dallas and Phillips will play in the centre of midfield with the latter desperate to nail down his place in Southgate’s England squad for the Euros.
Meslier was dropped for the 2-0 win at Southampton and I think he may make way for Kiko Casilla who could be making his final appearance for Leeds. Llorente’s injury forces a change as Struijk comes in to the side partnering captain Cooper. Alioski and Ayling line up in the full back positions.
The gameplan for West Brom here is to do themselves and the fans justice and scupper Leeds’ big day out. Leeds are a difficult side to face at the best of times, when they are at their irresistible best very few in the league can hang with them.
Jack Harrison has quietly emerged as a top wide forward talent, racking up 16 goal contributions (8 goals, 8 assists) this campaign which is equal to Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish and Sadio Mane.
Bamford often steals the headlines with skilful forward play which has seen him score 16 times this year.
If Raphinha and Rodrigo can demonstrate their lofty talents against West Brom for a second time this year the score line could be an ugly one.
Albion have a outside chance of nicking this though. Leeds have picked up nine points from their last six home fixtures, but they failed to score in half of those games.
They will adopt an energetic, high intensity press (no other team in the league has more team sprints or covered more distance sprinting) when out of possession and attempt to overwhelm defences by bombarding them with shots. Only Man City (5.46), Liverpool (5.30) and Man United (5.24) average more shots on target per 90 minutes than Leeds (5.08). Albion sit 19th in the league for the same statistic, averaging 2.76 per 90.
But if the legs of Gallagher and Phillips can match the dyamism of Leeds’ attacks, if Johnstone can perform some heroics and if the back four can withstand the relentless pressure of Bielsaball for 75 minutes then we could snatch this on the counter attack late on.
Cast your mind back to the incredible 5-2 performance at Stamford Bridge, how many of our goals came from efficient counter attacking play that capitalised on the opposition’s commitment of players forward?
Yes, space was left from Thiago Silva’s sending off. Yes, we can’t win every game like that. But Leeds are capable of a similar defensive implosion. On nine occasions this season, Leeds have conceded at least three goals in a game. United scored six, Fulham scored three, so did Crawley.
This is wishful thinking of the highest order though. Realistically, without Pereira and without the allure of Allardyce next season, this game may be the sad, if appropriate, ending to a torrid season.
Score Prediction: Leeds United 3-1 West Bromwich Albion