First Team 02/03/2018

Team News | West Bromwich Albion

Javi Gracia has been handed another injury boost with the news that Will Hughes is fit and available for selection against West Brom on Saturday.

Hughes was in consideration for last week's game against Everton, but it was decided to give him a further week to fully recover from the hamstring injury that has sidelined him since the game with Manchester United on November 28. The medical team did not want to take any chances with a player who scored in back-to-back games before he limped off at Vicarage Road.

"He is training with the team, full training," said Gracia. "He is available for selection for the next game."

And in further positive news, following the return of Kiko Femenía, Miguel Britos and Heurelho Gomes, Craig Cathcart is about to resume training. The defender has been out since the Newcastle away game in November.

"We have good news — not only bad," joked the Head Coach. "We are improving, we are recovering many players. We now have more options."

Gracia was not able to give any returns dates for Tom Cleverley, Christian Kabasele, Nathaniel Chalobah and Younès Kaboul, but he was able to provide clarity on the situation regarding Gerard Deulofeu.

"I think he has a stress fracture of the foot," said the Head Coach. "I am optimistic he will recover as soon as possible, but I don't know how long he will be out. It depends on many things. I think he will come back with us before we finish the season."

Gracia oversees training in the snow

The injury to the on-loan winger from Barcelona represents a significant blow as Deulofeu had been the catalyst for the up-turn in results under Gracia. He scored a brilliant solo goal against Chelsea, won a penalty and generally provided the spark the team needed.

"He's important for us," said Gracia. "He arrived the day before we played against Stoke and he played this game and all the matches after. He's an important player. Now we recover other players and we have more options at this moment. We try to look for an alternative solution. I try to choose the best option for every game."

Gracia, to his credit, is not getting down on his luck about the injury to Deulofeu and moaning about the loss of a key player. He accepts that injuries, particularly the one Deulofeu picked up, are part and parcel of football and says his focus will be on the players he does have to work with.

"I miss all my players when they are injured, but in my life I try not to complain about the things I don't have," he said. "I try to enjoy to things I have."

Watch Gracia's full press conference in the video above - free to view, no sign-up needed.

Power Hour at The Vic! Get money off selected food & drink from 1.30-2.30pm ahead of Saturday's West Brom game.

First Team 02/03/2018

Opposition Focus | West Brom

Matt Wilson, the Baggies reporter at the Express & Star, provides the lowdown on Saturday's opponents West Brom.

There is a stats-based piece on your website suggesting there is still hope for the Baggies. Do you think that's the case?

"Actually, I don't. Saturday's defeat [to Huddersfield] has left a lot of supporters convinced they are doomed. That game needed to be won to kickstart things and it just didn't happen. It wasn't the fact they lost — it was the manner of the defeat. The lack of fight and lack of conviction has left a lot of fans pretty down and resigned to their fate. They could prove otherwise on Saturday but even a win at Watford would be too late."

Just what has gone wrong, as West Brom were certainly not talked about as relegation candidates in the summer?

"It's difficult to know. It was widely considered they had a good summer in the transfer market. They strengthened from front to back and did some good deals, like Kieran Gibbs. But the main issue is that the players had long grown tired of Tony Pulis' methods and that spilled over into this season. The malaise had set in and they just couldn't get out of it."

Pulis was sacked in November after just 12 leagues, with the club in 17th and one point outside the drop zone. In hindsight, was it the right decision?

"It was done at the right time. He guided the team to 10th last season and this season was only 12 games old, but he did need to go. The atmosphere had become toxic. The fans had really turned on him and attendances were dropping. Most importantly, the players had stopped playing for him. There has been a little bit of revisionism recently with some saying they shouldn't have sacked him, but the timing was spot on.

"The issue was they didn't replace him with the right man. When Pulis was sacked there was plenty of time left. They were 17th and it wasn't like they were cut adrift. They needed to get the next appointment right and they didn't. It was all well and good sacking a manager, but you've got to back that up with the next appointment. And it looks increasingly likely they got that wrong."

The club eventually went for Alan Pardew. What was their thinking at the time?

"The club wanted someone with Premier League experience – that was essential. But, as Watford have shown, you can bring in an up-and-coming coach from outside the league and it works. We wanted a more imaginative appointment. The appointment of Pardew just seemed like a tired approach. He kept Palace up and took them to the FA Cup final, but a lot of the fans' fears have been realised. There is a lot of 'I told you so' at the moment."

Was there an initial bounce effect?

"He did improve performances at the start and they posed more of an attacking threat and the style was more pleasing on the eye. The fans took to him early on and he was saying all the right things, but it's really unravelled in the last month."

You've lost your last five in all competitions and Pardew has only tasted victory once in the league. Can you put your finger on just why it has just not clicked?

"A number of reasons really. You've had the off-field controversies and then he's made some poor team selections. He's kept faith with those four senior players who the brought club into disrepute and that's not gone down well with the supporters.

"He's also stubbornly persisted with 4-4-2. It was welcomed at the start as the fans had got tired of the 4-5-1 with Salomon Rondon isolated up front, but teams like Southampton and Huddersfield have come to The Hawthorns, played five in midfield and bossed the game.

"Pardew has stubbornly stuck with something that just isn't working. You've got Gareth Barry in there playing in a two. Look, he's been a great player and played more than 800 club games, but he's needed help in there and West Brom have just been overrun."

Pardew arrived at the Hawthorns following Pulis' departure in November 2017

There has also been a bit of upheaval upstairs with the chairman and chief executive leaving. 

"It's been a busy few weeks! That was the owner showing that he felt the decision to appoint Pardew was the wrong one. You just have to look at the table to see that and two board members paid the price."

The taxi incident in Barcelona cast a bit of cloud over the club. Have they drawn a line under that?

"It was dealt with by the club. All four players have been fined two weeks' wages, but it's still lingering for some fans. They would have forgotten it, not necessarily forgiven it, had they backed up what happened with performances on the pitch, but they just haven't and it's really compounded things. When you are bottom of the table incidents like that just get magnified."

There was a lot of talk that Daniel Sturridge might be the saviour when he arrived on loan from Liverpool last month. How has that moved turned out?

"That's another one of the issues that has reared its head. He was brought in in place of Jay Rodriguez, who was on a good run, a rich vein with five in seven games. But he was dropped in favour of Sturridge and then Sturridge didn't score and got injured. Rodriguez then came back, but he's not been able to recapture the same run of form.

"Fans are tearing their hair out at this one. Everybody felt they foresaw it happening. I maintain that Sturridge was worth a punt, especially as a low-risk loan, and any team in the bottom half would have taken him. Pardew has just been unlucky with that one."

It looked like you might turn things around when you won 3-2 at Liverpool, Sturridge's parent club, in the FA Cup and that might be the launchpad for a Premier League rescue act.

"We all thought it was, too. They had just beaten Brighton at home, got a good draw at Everton when they should have won, and then outplayed Liverpool to win in the cup. The win was marred by the VAR controversy, but I remember leaving Anfield quite confident they would stay up. They were playing well and were now starting to turn performances into results. It just hasn't happened."

Could you cite injuries as a problem?

"Injuries have left them a bit light this season, but right now they've only got Sturridge, Chadli and Morrison definitely out. Sturridge is out with a hamstring, Chadli has a thigh injury and Morrison has a long-term Achilles problem."

So with that in mind, what would be your best guess at Saturday's team?

"Good question. He's stuck with the same team and line-up religiously but it's do or die now, so I think he'll change it up. Foster will be in goal and then the back four will be Dawson, Hegazi, Evans and Gibbs. Ahead of them I think he'll reinstate Brunt on the left wing, as he played well on Saturday, and play a 4-5-1. Barry, Livermore and Krychowiak will be the three in the middle and Rodriguez on the right. Rondon will play up top."

If it's a repeat of the 2-2 draw at the Hawthorns we could be in for a thriller on Saturday. Do you look back at blowing a two-goal lead that day as a turning point?

"That's been the story of the season – they've lost 18 points from winning positions. It suggests they are physically fatigued and there is some mental fragility. They've also gone so long without a win that the pressure of winning a game has got to them.

"That Watford game, they just couldn't get over the line and I still remember that silly foul McClean made at the end. Funnily enough, that wasn't the worst example of them crumbling this season, so that's pretty galling in itself."

So, finally, how do you see Saturday's game going?

"If I'm being brutally honest, West Brom are at a real low point and I can't see anything other than a Watford win."

Power Hour at The Vic! Get money off selected food & drink from 1.30-2.30pm ahead of Saturday's West Brom game.