AFTER a night of frustration against Manchester United, Liverpool are looking to bounce back and get back to winning ways on Saturday. Standing in their way are West Bromwich Albion and Tony Pulis, who boasts an excellent record against the Reds.
We spoke to Andrew Benbow, West Brom fan and blogger for the Birmingham Mail, to find out what’s going on at The Albion.
First of all, what’s your favourite memory of playing against Liverpool?
As a child growing up in the 80s Liverpool were THE team – they were the ones everyone wanted to see. One of my earliest footballing memories was not being allowed to go to the game at the Hawthorns in 1986. My brother was, as he was two years older than me, which seemed really unfair at the time. I didn’t expect to have to wait 16 years for my next chance.
When it came it was a bit of a rude awakening to the Premier League. We only lost 2-0, but it was a horrible defeat. Russell Hoult was rightly sent off but then Sami Hyypia scythed down Jason Roberts in the box – nothing given. It seemed to happen week in week out after that, and there was a lot of bitterness among our fans who saw the Premier League as not being a fair fight.
Fast forward a few years and we now have a very good record against Liverpool. Our win under lights at Anfield was special, but two of our games at the Hawthorns have provided some of my best memories in recent years. Winning comfortably 3-0, including a stunning Zoltan Gera goal and Romelu Lukaku announcing himself as a proper player was great, but I think ‘Roy’s Revenge’ was my favourite. You can’t beat a crucial win, after being behind, with a last minute penalty from your favourite player.
West Brom’s stand out result so far this season was their 4-2 victory over West Ham, how much of a surprise was it to score more than one goal in a match?!
I would like to take you to task about a lazy stereotype regarding Albion under Tony Pulis here but I really can’t… Yes, it was a major surprise. Nacer Chadli made a huge difference, and has done in the games since. Finally we have a link between Salomon Rondon and the 10 players behind him. That said, the way we played wasn’t actually much different to the usual – we just happened to take the chances that fell our way.
Apart from that West Ham result, West Brom have been typically stingy so far. Would you expect them to continue that approach this season?
As long as Pulis is our manager, nothing will change. He clearly thinks we don’t have the players to take on teams in a nice, open game of football. Often, and Saturday is certainly one of these times, he is right. What is truly frustrating is the way that this approach is never tweaked when playing sides at the bottom of the table, or even from lower leagues (our record under Pulis against teams outside the top division is astoundingly bad).
Pulis’s league record against Liverpool is astonishing – P14, W3, D9, L2 – does that give you confidence going into the game?
He’s unbeaten in his last eight as well, I think? Our record at Anfield in our last five is also impressive – P5, W2, D1, L2. However, as with many Albion fans, I’m a pessimist – past results count for little when a game kicks off. They do mean we won’t be overawed though, and having belief is half the battle.
What is the general fan opinion of Pulis? You get the feeling that he’ll keep you safe, but are fans starting to crave something a bit more exciting?
Fans aren’t only just beginning to crave more – Pulis wasn’t a popular choice in the first place. We may not crow about it like Spurs and West Ham, but Albion have a history of playing good football that goes back to Vic Buckingham in the 1950s. Albion fans don’t want pragmatism, we want the kind of football that we enjoyed up until the last excellent side we had of Brown, Regis and Cunningham in the 70s.
We’ve not won a European Cup like Villa and we’ve rarely had the sort of money that they like to chuck around at Wolves, but we do have a tradition of trying to play the right way. It’s always been a source of pride for supporters. This sort of thing matters.
And we certainly aren’t going to see good football under Pulis – the chants of “Tony Pulis, your football is shite” that rang around the away end at Bournemouth tell you the fans’ feelings.
And if the kind of football you are asked to watch week in week out is as dismal as that we have to sit through at the Hawthorns, the results have to be good. And they haven’t been. Two wins in our last 17 Premier League games tells you that.
We may look as if we are safely mid-table at the moment but our fixtures have been incredibly benign (Boro, Bournemouth, West Ham, Stoke, Sunderland…). Let us see where we are after the next three games.
Maybe to an extent we are getting delusions of grandeur – didn’t Bolton, Charlton and the like also want something more than mid-table obscurity? Look where they are now. But there comes a point when a desperate struggle for enough 1-0 wins to finish 17th isn’t enough. Shouldn’t football be, you know, fun?
Pulis was quite vocal in the summer about West Brom’s inactivity in the transfer market. Even though West Brom ended up breaking their transfer record on Nacer Chadli, Pulis still seemed unsatisfied. What was your opinion of West Brom’s summer business?
Dismal. It would have been depressingly predictable if it wasn’t the fact that this time it felt like things might be different. We went into the transfer window knowing that we badly needed reinforcements, and we finished it only marginally better off, despite a much heralded takeover. For our Chairman John Williams to say ‘Pulis wanted five and got five’ was to insult the intelligence of both the manager and the fans – it may actually have been one of the only times that the fans have sided with Pulis.
Nothing illustrated the absolute shambles better than the last day of the transfer window, which ended in us getting Hal Robson-Kanu, someone who had been available all summer.
We were in dire need of another forward and a central midfield player with a bit of pace and drive. Thank god Chadli has been excellent – I dread to think where we would be otherwise.
West Brom scored two goals from set pieces when the two sides met at Anfield last season. Defending set plays continues to be Liverpool’s achilles heel, will West Brom look to exploit this again on Saturday?
Of course! We will defend with nine players and then hope Rondon can buy a foul or two.
Apart from set pieces, in what other ways could West Brom threaten Liverpool?
Chadli has found space in dangerous areas and has the quality to take advantage of them. Our problem is getting up the pitch in the first place. We will plan to stifle Liverpool, but we lack the speed to break threateningly. To the surprise of Albion fans, James McClean has been very good in recent weeks though, and he has the confidence at the moment to try and get at your full backs.
Jonny Evans will be suspended on Saturday. How big a blow is that and who do you think will come in to replace him?
Massive. When he was linked with Arsenal it was incredible to see the irate reaction of their fans, who seemed to think he is beneath them. He is an impeccable player and we are very lucky to have him. I expect Jonas Olsson will come in. That is fine when he comes up against a muscular forward he can tussle with for 90 minutes, but the way Liverpool set up does not play to his, or our strengths.
And finally, can you give us a prediction for the game?
2-0 Liverpool. We will defend manfully, and it may even be successful for a while, but I can’t see us truly threatening. Sadio Mané and Philippe Coutinho will be tough for us to keep tabs on, and I think you have too much quality for us to keep you out for 90 minutes. Our only hope is that we can stifle Liverpool, quieten the crowd, and force you to start taking risks.