West Bromwich Albion 1 Fulham 0
Roman Bednar’s second-half winner helped West Bromwich Albion to successive top-flight victories for the first time in 52 games and to the heady heights of ninth in the table.
This is the club’s best ever start to a Premier League campaign and their recent run of form – three wins in four games – has forced the country’s footballing literati to question their widespread pre-season predictions that the Baggies were relegation certainties.
Manager Tony Mowbray has consistently insisted that survival has never been uppermost in his thoughts and a series of impressive recent results, from fairly average performances by Baggies standards, shows why.
If his defence continues to perform like they did against Fulham and his team can add a frugality to their unquestioned potential to win games, then a relegation scrap will be comfortably averted.
That said, a Fulham side including former Hawthorns favourite Zoltan Gera was awful – the player was pretty bad too, in fact – and although the Hungarian was afforded a warm reception, he was not shown a similar level of respect by Gianni Zuiverloon, the right-back, who marked him out of the game.
The Dutch Under-21 international was again superb, exhibiting all the defensive and attacking qualities that have quickly made him one of the most-coveted prospects in the country.
His was not the only eye-catching performance from a Dutch Under-21 international, however. Ryan Donk’s work at the heart of Albion’s defence was equally impressive and, like Zuiverloon, he is clearly possessed of enviable athletic ability.
With his best mate and countryman alongside him on the right half of Albion’s defence, the team can rely on a seemingly telepathic understanding.
What was particularly encouraging about Donk, aside from his reading of the game and an aerial prowess that was dominant in both boxes, was the unapologetic way in which he would smash the ball long or into the stand as and when the circumstance dictated.
Such pragmatism has been missing from Albion’s play as they have tried to see out games.
When it was on to play, however, the 22-year-old looked as comfortable on the ball as a midfielder.
This was a mightily impressive all-round defensive display from the Baggies, even though Fulham posed few problems.
But while all the defenders shone, it is clear Mowbray still has some teething problems elsewhere.
Ishmael Miller, for instance, looks a shadow of the player who bullied defenders in the Championship.
While his eagerness for work is commendable, his distribution and touch were awful.
He has much to prove at this level, as does record signing Borja Valero, who continues to show only fleeting glimpses of his quality.
In fairness to the Spaniard, the strikers are not making the runs he wants. On several occasions on Saturday, his forwards waved an apologetic hand after failing to interpret the midfielder’s cute thoughts.
Albion lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Mowbray handing starts to Bednar and Miller for the first time this season.
If anything, this change blunted their usually incisive attacking threat which has been so evident when playing 4-5-1.
In the first half it was obvious that parts of the team were not functioning with the same cohesion as they have at other times this campaign, particularly the relationship between midfielders and forwards.
Scott Carson was by far the busier of the goalkeepers in the first period but rarely troubled, safely gathering several speculative efforts from long range and tidily mopping up the odd misdirected cross. The best chance of the half fell to Gera on 30 minutes.
Donk was skillfully dispossessed in the box by Clint Dempsey – the defender’s only mistake of the day – and the American pulled the ball back to the Hungarian who was unmarked but who sliced his shot just wide.
Albion were far better after the break and totally dominated.
Perhaps it was no surprise that improvement coincided with Valero’s increased involvement.
The Spaniard took over corner-taking duty from Jonathan Greening and Albion made the breakthrough on the hour.
Having seen a James Morrison effort cleared off the line from a corner, another vicious in-swinger brought the desired result when Bednar popped up to prod the ball home among a melee of bodies. It was a far from spectacular goal – one befitting the game, in many ways – but also a reflection of an Albion side that is showing the willingness to scrap games out.
The Hawthorns awaited a response – this was the team that beat Arsenal, after all – but it never came.
In contrast, Albion’s quality grew.
Bednar, confidence now booming, rattled the crossbar with a terrific effort from 30 yards and proved troublesome until the end.
But for all the striker’s impressive efforts, this game was about defenders; a young Dutch pair, in particular.
Scorer: Bednar (61).
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Carson; Robinson, Olsson, Donk, Zuiverloon; Morrison (Cech, 79), Koren, Valero, Greening; Miller (Moore, 64), Bednar. Substitutes: Kiely, Hoefkens, Barnett, MacDonald, Pele.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes, Pantsil (Stoor, 82); Gera, Murphy (Andreasen, 87), Bullard, Davies; Dempsey, Zamora (Ki-Hyeon, 70). Substitutes: Zuberbuhler, Nevland, Kallio, Baird.
Referee: Phil Dowd.
Bookings: Albion – Olsson, Valero (both fouls); Fulham – Andreasen (foul).