Steve Clarke’s West Bromwich Albion posted an excellent 2012-13 Premier League season, but the Baggies face a difficult task on opening day of the new campaign. Southampton arrive with their first preseason under Mauricio Pochettino completed and ready to improve on last year’s 14th-place finish.
Both sides have worked hard to attract signings across the summer. Come game day, will any of the new players make a difference? Who else should be considered key to their side’s success? Let’s look at the potential game-changers.
West Bromwich Albion
McAuley played excellently throughout the 2012-13 season.
His determination and willingness to do battle highlights a West Brom side that always aims to win under Clarke. The 33-year-old defender—whose recent showings have been amongst the best of his career—will have a real fight on his hands against Southampton. Can the centre-back muscle Rickie Lambert out of goalscoring opportunities?
Knowing McAuley, he’ll go up the other end and head in the winner from a corner.
So often undervalued, James Morrison should be considered one of the Baggies’ real stars. The versatile Scot—who is just as likely to produce a momentum-shifting slide tackle as he is a long-ranged pass—will be buoyed by his Wembley goal during the Tartan Army's 3-2 midweek loss to England.
Morrison’s dynamic role in the midfield will be key to any West Brom success. His energy and doggedness needs to stifle the power of players such as Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin, who are likely to dictate traffic in the middle.
Morrison is likely to flit between the wings and central areas in order to stop the behemoths holding onto possession.
Now the influence of Romelu Lukaku has returned back to Chelsea, it’s a former Stamford Bridge star who could played the starring role in West Brom’s first match. Whether he starts or not, Anelka should be outlined as a real threat to a Saints defence that cannot afford to give him a clean sight at goal.
Sure, Anelka is no spring chicken. At 34 years old, the veteran Frenchman is more than likely to stick away any chance he is given around the box. He remains deadly and shouldn't be overlooked.
Schneiderlin is an absolute bruiser. His endless array of tackles and interceptions is enough to make the toughest of men scamper away in fear. The 23-year-old is likely to link two new signings in Dejan Lovren and Wanyama, who will be pleased to receive his support through the middle.
Pochettino knows he has a gem in Schneiderlin. He emerged into the thoughts of many last year with a season of stellar performances, and he needs to begin the new season where he left off. If Schneiderlin can regularly gain possession, spray the ball wide and maintain possession with short passes, Southampton will easily take control of the game.
Another brute in the Saints midfield is Wanyama. The former Celtic destroyer will make his Premier League debut against a West Brom side who will be ready to sniff out his threat. Wanyama’s power, pace and relentless energy needs to be matched with intelligent positioning, or else the Kenyan will easily become overruled in the middle.
It will be extremely interesting to see how Pochettino interlinks Schneiderlin and Wanyama. The two share similar natural instincts and are prone to chasing the ball down. It could serve Southampton well if Schneiderlin sits in a disciplined deep-lying role, with Wanyama hunting the ball across the halfway line. Keep an eye on this one.
It’s almost written in the stars that Rickie Lambert’s fairytale week is going to continue. Not content with an England call-up, the burly forward only went and scored the winning goal with his first international touch of the ball. Scottish heads dropped, while Lambert’s excellent header saw him reel away in jubilant style.
West Brom know what they are up against. Southampton’s power continues beyond the midfield. Lambert is a hustler. He is always willing to throw his weight about, hold the ball up and allow attacking support to arrive. Often deadly from set-pieces, he’ll pose a real threat in the air, especially if the likes of Adam Lallana, Jason Puncheon and Gaston Ramirez can pull defenders away from his position.
Can Rickie net another important goal this week? It’s difficult to bet against him.
Which players will stand out during this enticing fixture? Let everybody know in the comments section below and be sure to hit me up on Twitter: