West Bromwich Albion host Nottingham Forest on Saturday in a game that is already looking like proving decisive in the race for automatic promotion to the Premier League.
When Forest defeated Leeds by two goals to nil in the highlight match of the EFL last weekend, it looked as if the battle for the top two had been blown wide open. But that has all changed again, as the Championship often does, with a set of somewhat surprising mid-week fixtures.
Nottingham Forest have not really looked like troubling the promotion places in the last few seasons, last making the play-offs in 2011 under Billy Davies. A string of disappointing managerial appointments and performances alike have meant that there has never been much consistency at the club. However, Sabri Lamouchi has changed that this season and is leading them towards mounting a serious challenge. A 2-0 victory over Leeds at the City Ground on Saturday was something that only strengthened the belief that they can get back into the promise land for the first time since 1999.
That belief withered in the mid-week Championship fixtures when Charlton went to the City Ground and claimed a 1-0 victory which significantly boosted their chances of survival whilst simultaneously damaging Forest’s promotion credentials. It was a game which has seen Lamouchi receive some criticism from Forest and football fans alike for the five changes which he made. Whilst it wouldn’t have been questioned had Forest triumphed, it does seem like a bizarre decision to make. The Championship is built on momentum as it is so rare to accumulate any with the competitive nature of the league and Forest seemed to have forfeited theirs. The defeat was their first since December when they were on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline to Huddersfield, a run which had seen them to get back into contention.
Forest now face a different pressure entirely. It would appear, based on the volume of changes that he made, that Lamouchi thought that all he had to do was name eleven players and Forest would win the match, then believing that a fully rested squad could go into Saturday and take advantage of a potentially tiring West Brom squad to claim at least a point. However, they didn’t beat Charlton or even take a point, placing a greater air of expectancy to get a result out of this fixture. With Forest playing at dinner time, a defeat could leave them out of the race for the top two by the end of the weekend with Leeds, Fulham and Brentford all having winnable games in the 3pm clashes. Again, this adds pressure to the situation, a pressure which wouldn’t have been as apparent if they had picked up all three points at home to Charlton.
The Baggies have gone some way of repairing the damage caused by a run of no win in seven games after Christmas, meaning that their once eleven point lead over third place had been severely eroded. However, three wins on the spin (2-0 v Luton and Millwall, 2-1 v Reading) has seen them move back into a position of comfort, finishing round 32 of the Championship six points clear of Leeds and Fulham who are level on points in third and fourth, respectively.
Slaven Bilic’s side had to come from behind against Reading but deserved to do so. The Royals went in front with a penalty on eleven minutes which was conceded in comical fashion when Kyle Bartley handled the ball. However, West Brom scored either side of half time and managed to see out the game to extend their lead at the top of the table. Whilst the scoreline suggests it was a close game, the data says otherwise with West Brom winning the xG count 1.85 to 1.28. 0.77 of Reading’s xG was a penalty and because the spot kick was awarded in bizarre circumstances (rather than a neat bit of play causing a West Brom defender to make a rash challenge), I believe it is fair to discount this chance, taking their xG down to just 0.51.
The victory against Reading makes it three on the bounce for West Brom and signifies a very successful week. All three of the sides which they have beaten show the different play styles and qualities that the Championship has to offer on a weekly basis. Luton place a lot of emphasis on attacking, possessing some good quality up front with the likes of James Collins, Izzy Brown and Harry Cornick. Millwall are physical, as they always have been, are difficult to break down and beat, especially at The Den. Reading have been inconsistent with punters never really knowing what to expect from them. To come through these three games unscathed and with a healthy lead at the top of the table is remarkable, especially in a division where strong blocks of form are hard to put together. It truly is a division where anyone can beat anyone on their day.
Read More: See our Championship predictions for today’s 3pm fixtures.
Forest play very effective football, opting to sit and soak up the pressure from whoever they are playing before pouncing on any kind of mistake and scoring on the break. It has worked well this season, obviously, as they are still in a comfortable position to make the play-offs. However, they sit 17th in the xG table, implying that they are riding their luck this season, creating little from open play and relying on mistakes and misses to transition defence into attack. With the quality of West Brom’s attack strong enough already without the January additions of Callum Robinson and Kamil Grosicki, Forest may not get too many opportunities to launch counter attacks with the Baggies having the capability to be ruthless.
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