Luke Hatfield, Digital Sports Journalist for the Express and Star previews Barnsley’s Boxing Day clash with West Bromwich Albion – here’s the view from the opposition camp.
The Reds go into the busy festive Christmas period coming off the back of a great run of form which has seen them pick up an impressive total of ten points from their last five matches.
Head Coach, Gerhard Struber remains unbeaten at Oakwell and will be looking to extend his record in front of the home faithful on Thursday afternoon, as the Reds go in search of their third successive victory in the Sky Bet Championship.
Last weekend, Barnsley were able to lift themselves off the foot of the table with a 2-1 win over Millwall thanks to a last-gasp winner from Austrian forward Patrick Schmidt in the third minute of stoppage time.
As for West Brom, they’ve been in fantastic form over the course of the season and haven’t lost a game since they were beaten 1-0 by Leeds United at the beginning of October.
The league leaders have won four of their last six matches and are currently three points clear of second placed Leeds.
However, last Saturday, the Baggies were held to a 1-1 draw with high-flying Brentford, as full-back Darnell Furlong had to pull a goal back to earn them a point at The Hawthorns.
Despite that result, Express and Star writer Hatfield says Slaven Bilić will be delighted with the way his team has performed over the first half of the season, as they enter Christmas top of the tree.
He said: “West Brom have been fantastic this season.
“After the hurt of the play-offs last season, Albion saw a number of big-name players leave the club - whilst there were changes behind the scenes to be made too.
“The losses of Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez had fans worried about where the goals were coming from, whilst Craig Dawson's exit did leave a hole to fill at the back.
“But Slaven Bilic took all that in stride having come in over the summer and has made Albion an incredibly tough team to beat and with firepower going forward from midfield. They're deserving of their place top of the Championship table, having lost just once in the league all season (that being away at Leeds).
“Having opened up a sizeable gap to third place and sitting top over Christmas, the question now for the Baggies is whether they can maintain their form which has got them here.”
Croatian legend Bilić, joined West Brom in the summer after a combination of Darren Moore and James Shan had led the Baggies to a 4th place finish and the playoffs last season.
However, Albion ultimately fell short of the final hurdle, as they were beaten on penalties in the semi-finals by Black Country rivals Aston Villa following a 2-2 draw on aggregate.
As a result, the board of directors called for change in the dugout and turned to former West Ham Utd boss Bilić to steady the ship in their quest to get back into the Premier League after a two-year absence.
Under Bilić, West Brom have been on fire, showing on more than one occasion, the glimpses of quality which led them to a highly placed finish last season.
Although, at the end of this campaign, Bilić will be hoping he can guide his side one-step further and get the Baggies promoted back to England’s top tier.
After a strong start, Albion have set the bar high, and with fans expecting their team to be in the automatic promotion places come May, there’s a real buzz in the air around The Hawthorns this Christmas.
“There's a very good vibe around the fanbase right now at Albion, and rightly so.
“Slaven Bilic has taken to the Baggies very well and the fans have embraced him and his methods too.
“On top of that, the performances obviously help - along with losing only once all season. They've not been beaten at home in the league either, so the majority of fans are yet to taste defeat watching live.
“There is a slight sense of expectation from fans now given the strong first half of the season. Should Albion finish outside of the automatic promotion places, it would a real drop off. For what it's worth, I don't see that happening, but football is football - nothing is signed and sealed yet,” added Hatfield.
A typical Bilić side tends to reflect himself as a person, he’ll have the players looking to express themselves through their own character and charisma.
“His philosophy is that of having the ball, maintaining possession and picking holes in defences to beat teams and that has worked so far. He's obviously been helped by the quality in the side, but that's credit to his and Albion's recruitment too.
“In terms of formation, expect Bilic to utilise a 4-2-3-1 as he has all season long. He's more than capable of changing things when needed, as shown in the win over Birmingham, when he essentially went to a 3-5-2 style which saw Romaine Saywers drop very deep to dictate play.
“For the game against Barnsley, I'd expect them to line up something like this:
4-2-3-1: Johnstone; Ferguson, O' Shea, Ajayi, Furlong; Sawyers, Livermore; Edwards, Pereira, Phillips; Robson-Kanu.”
With the form Albion are in at the moment, Hatfield pointed out the difficulties in spotting where the weaknesses within this West Brom side lay.
He said: “There aren't many to pick from, to be frank.
“I'd say the worry at the moment is the depth of the squad, due to the current injuries that have hit the side.
“At the back, Dara O'Shea looks likely to start given the quick turnaround required from Kyle Bartley after he twisted his ankle against Brentford. That's because Ahmed Hegazi was dropped from the squad last time around.
“Meanwhile, Diangana's injury means Edwards will most likely start. He's often the player used by Bilic to come on with 30 minutes or so remaining to cause problems against tiring legs.
“Up front, the Baggies have the likes of Charlie Austin and seldom used Kenneth Zohore, so they're fine there. Otherwise though you'd say injuries are limiting their options elsewhere.”
However, in the reverse fixture between the two sides, the Baggies had a particularly hard time dealing with the firepower in attack for the Reds.
Cauley Woodrow quickly fired Barnsley into a two-goal lead early in the first half, before West Brom hit back in the second period and snatched a point courtesy of Matheus Pereira in the last ten minutes.
Albion will need to be extra wary of that Barnsley threat this time around.
“It should be an interesting game, that's for sure,” said Hatfield.
“You might recall that the game at The Hawthorns was one which gave Albion fans quite a scare. The Baggies did manage a 2-2 draw, but after 25 minutes the Tykes were two goals up.
“As a result, I think they'll approach this one with a sense of caution. It's probable that they went into the previous game with the Tykes with a slight sense of expectation given where each side was in the table ahead of the clash.
“If that was the case, there's no chance they'll make the same mistake this time around. They're aware that Barnsley are low down in the table, but they'll want to build on their lead atop the Championship.
“The festive period can be a defining period for every side in the division, and the same goes for Albion. Bilic will make them more than aware of that.
“Given their slow start last time against the Tykes, I'd expect them to try and right that wrong and start strong at Oakwell.”
After Matheus Pereira’s wonderful second half display during that game, Barnsley will be mindful of his ability going into the match at Oakwell on Thursday.
However, the Brazilian, who is on-loan from Sporting Lisbon has been an outstanding figure for West Brom all season, and will for sure, be looking to add more to his already impressive goal and assist tally.
Hatfield highlighted the 23-year-old as the one-to-watch.
“There have been so many good performers this season for Albion, but the best has been Matheus Pereira.
“The Brazilian forward has simply been majestic since joining on-loan from Sporting CP over the summer.
“Some of the goals he's scored this season have been absurd, and the way he can dictate play and dominate games has been a joy to watch.
“Albion have an option to buy him for less than £10m, which seems crazy considering that his performances seem to suggest he's worth two or maybe three times that at least.
“He's a massive danger from set pieces too. So be wary giving away free kicks within 25 yards.”
Given the current league position, there have also been many surprise packages emerge from West Brom this season.
One of those, is youngster Nathan Ferguson, who has been flourishing under Bilić.
“There have been a few surprises this season, but young Nathan Ferguson's rise from youth team prospect to one of the most promising young defenders outside of the Premier League came out of the blue.
“Formerly utilised at centre back in the youth ranks, Ferguson has been used as a full back by Bilic and has looked years ahead of his tender age of 19.
“He offers Albion some real balance defensively, and despite being a natural right footer, will probably start on the left flank with Darnell Furlong bombing forward on the right side.”
Hatfield went on to say, “I'd back the Baggies to get a win this time around, such is their brilliant form over the first half of the season, but should Barnsley keep up their own recent results they could cause an upset.
“I think Barnsley will give Albion a real game on Boxing Day, especially given their recent upturn in form, but I still think the Baggies will pick up three points at Oakwell in an entertaining encounter. 4-2 to Albion.”