With the Baggies in a comfortable position in the league, this season looked like the perfect opportunity for a cup run and yet Albion contrived to somehow lose at home to Derby County in the first match this season in which they have had more possession than the opposition.
The attendance of just over 25,000 was a record for an FA Cup 3rd Round tie at the Hawthorns since the visit of West Ham in 1993, although it was only slightly higher than that for the visit of Bristol City last year, and while the sell out following from the Rams and the discounted prices may have helped, I do think that it was an indication that the Baggies fans were ready to get behind a cup run.
As for the team selection, Pulis cannot be criticised too harshly. While the selections of Galloway and Myhill were probably unnecessary, the injury to Jonny Evans and the question mark over the availability of Allan Nyom meant that changes had to be made at the back. Galloway had been pretty much frozen out by Pulis since a difficult afternoon against West Ham, and I was not disappointed to see him get another chance. I don’t think he did too much wrong, an assessment that could be applied to most of the team, but it just didn’t happen.
Early on, Derby’s insistence on playing out from the back looked to be creating their own problems giving Rondón and early chance that was cleared off the line and, while the visitors had a good deal of possession in the first half, it was the Baggies who always looked the more likely to score. And so it proved when another loose pass at the back fell to man-of-the-moment, Matt Phillips, who calmly finished to give Albion the lead. Had Morrison kept his effort under the bar a couple of minutes later, it may well have been game over, but it remained 1-0 at the break.
Darren Bent’s pile driver came out of nothing and gave Derby a massive lift. ALbion looked comfortable until that point but suddenly the Rams had momentum. If one player should come in for real criticism on the day, it was Jonas Olsson. His distribution was poor all game, but it was his unexplainable urge to push up almost to the Derby goal line that ultimately led to the winning goal. For some reason, he decided to try and close down a Derby defender way up near the corner flag and as the ball was cleared, Albion were short at the back leading to Morrison giving away the foul. Olsson has been a great servant for the club, but his time has come and there is always a sense of trepidation when he is on the pitch.
Perhaps Foster would’ve done better with Ince’s free kick, but Myhill was excellent throughout Foster’s injury and I think it would be harsh to apportion too much blame to the Welshman – I suspect he was unsighted but the fact that he didn’t even dive did make it look worse.
Even with those two goals, Albion should have won the game. 15 corners, 28 shots and 54% possession shows how the Baggies dominated the game, but as we well know, that means nothing. Pulis’s team have been on the other side of those stats in every Premier League game this season and sit in eighth place, and even against Northampton Town, Albion only managed 50% possession in a game that they also ended up losing, albeit on penalties.
Ultimately, it was the Baggies inability to take the chances they did create, coupled with a fine rearguard action from Derby that Pulis would’ve been proud of, that led to this cup exit. It does leave Albion with nothing to play for this season, bar the modest target of amassing 50 points for the first time in the Premier League. I guess there is the vague possibility of European football qualification falling as low as 7th in the league, and for that reason, Baggies fans might be supporting both Liverpool and Manchester United as the League Cup semi-finals kick off this week.
While the result is intensely disappointing, I don’t think too much blame can be placed on Tony Pulis. It wasn’t too far off the strongest team available to him, and it was the players who let him down by not being clinical enough in front of goal. Pulis’s wait for a trophy goes on, but don’t forget that he has his own personal target of guiding a club to a top ten Premier League finish to achieve, and that campaign gets back underway with the visit of Spurs on Saturday lunchtime.