Premier League: Can West Brom Finish in the Top Five and Qualify for Europe?
While Everton have risen into the top four of the Premier League with much media fanfare this season, very little has been made of another side defying expectations by occupying a European berth.
Over in the Black Country, West Bromwich Albion have been discreetly churning out results, and now find themselves in fifth place after eleven league games, tied on points with David Moyes's lauded side.
The Baggies currently have the fourth-best form in the league and have failed to win only one of their six home matches (a 2-1 defeat by reigning champions Manchester City, in which they were unlucky not to earn any points).
So, how have The Albion managed to slip under the radar and enjoy such lofty success so far this season?
Much of the credit must go to manager Steve Clarke. This season marks the former Chelsea defender's first full-time managerial post, but he has spent more than a decade of his post-playing career cutting his teeth as an assistant manager.
After a stint at Newcastle, Clarke worked under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, helping the Blues win two league titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup. The Scot also assisted former colleague Gianfranco Zola at Chelsea, and is given much of the credit for the Hammers' ninth-place finish in 2008/09.
Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, still speaks highly of the 49-year-old.
Credit also belongs to those working hard on the pitch. Scottish midfielder James Morrison headed the winner on the road at Wigan last week after returning from hamstring injury and has had 17 shots on target from ten games—the same amount as joint top scorer Shane Long.
On-loan Belgian Romelu Lukaku, meanwhile, is providing plenty of physical threat upfront, At the back, former England keeper Ben Foster has bounced back from minor surgery and is part of a defence that has only conceded four goals at home, a tally only bettered by Stoke and Sunderland.
The European stage would not be an entirely foreign concept for The Throstles: the 1920 Football League champions reached the Cup Winners Cup quarter-finals in 1969, and the last eight of the UEFA Cup in 1978-79.
Staying in contention for fifth place and a Europa League spot for the remainder of the season, however, will be a mammoth task for a team who were re-promoted to the top flight just two seasons ago. The Baggies haven't finished that highly in the football league pyramid since 1981, when Ron Atkinson guided them to fourth place.
However, hopeful West Brom fans can cite the precedent of Ipswich Town's 2000-01 season. Many expected the Tractor Boys to go straight back down after winning the Championship, but George Burley's side stayed in the upper echelons for much of the season, and ended up in fifth place.
Also, unlike a lot of Premiership sides of their stature and calibre, West Brom continue to approach every match aiming to get three points, regardless of their opposition.
James Morrison told reporters this week they went for the win when Manchester City visited The Hawthorns, and they shall do so again when Chelsea come to town this Saturday (BBC WM via Goal.com).
Positive play may continue to reap rewards: a win against Chelsea could put West Brom in fourth position, just one point behind the current Champions League holders. Albion beat The Blues in the corresponding fixture last season, and a repeat of that result is not out of the question.
Regardless of whether Steve Clarke pulls off a famous victory against his former employers this weekend, the game will surely provide a measuring stick of Albion's progress this season, and could be telling indicator of their ability to maintain a strong top-half finish.
As for the Baggies 'boing boing-ing' their way into the San Siro next season? Stranger things have happened...
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