Derby County v West Brom preview: Will Slaven Bilic's team keep improving?
Slaven Bilic is adamant his side are improving with each match as new relationships are forged and fitness levels improve.
It’s why he was smiling after Wednesday’s draw with Reading, despite needing an 88th-minute penalty to rescue a point.
But an early trip to Pride Park will provide a stern test of his theory, particularly because Philip Cocu’s Derby County will be determined to bounce back after their first defeat of the season.
Bilic has plenty of big decisions to make. Not only did Darnell Furlong make a strong case at right-back, but Kenneth Zohore and Matheus Pereira also staked a claim from the bench.
Zohore delivered under the pressure of a late penalty in front of the Birmingham Road End, and under normal circumstances, the big Dane would deserve another chance after such a confidence boost.
“I think this goal will spur me on to get more goals,” said Zohore. “There’s plenty more to come.”
But Zohore is nursing a calf knock that will be assessed on Friday and may restrict him to the bench at Pride Park.
There is an argument both strikers could play – particularly at home – where Albion have struggled to find a cutting edge up front.
But with two away wins from two, the current system is worth persisting with for this trip, especially as Derby play 4-2-3-1 as well.
That puts pressure on the ‘second row’ behind the striker – as Bilic calls them.
The options are plenty, but Pereira seemed to strike up a flourishing relationship with Filip Krovinovic towards the latter parts of Wednesday’s game, and had a hand in winning the penalty.
Bilic was pleased with how Albion started and finished the draw with Reading, although he wants more consistency.
“We have to extend the minutes we are dominating, but to nullify that is practically impossible,” he said.
“A football game is long, like life. It’s difficult to be like that no matter how much we want it.
“First of all, the opponent also have good players there. Sometimes they keep the ball well, it takes time to go up when they take you down.
“Our job is to keep them fresh and motivated, tactically aware of the small jobs, closing down and all that.”
One aspect of this team that has pleased him so far has been its resilience.
Albion are one of four unbeaten sides left in the Championship, and yet they’ve come from behind in three out of their four games so far.
But it has been the manner of those comebacks that has impressed Bilic.
“Three times we’ve come from behind, we didn’t change the way we were playing, even after the penalty, we didn’t put the ball in and saw what happened, we were passing,” he said.
Albion struggled against Derby last season, when they were hammered 4-1 at The Hawthorns and lost 3-1 at Pride Park on the final day of the regular season.
But this is a different Derby side, and there is a tiny bit of pressure on them after a three-game winless streak.
If Albion improve again, they should give Cocu’s side plenty to think about, provided they find that final flourish in front of goal.
Subs: Bond, O'Shea, Ferguson, Brunt, Edwards, Diangana, Zohore.
Key battle – Tom Lawrence v Darnell Furlong
There is much more pressure riding on the shoulders of Lawrence this year following the return of loan stars Mason Mount and Harry Wilson to Chelsea and Liverpool respectively. Lawrence did not look out of place alongside them last season and represents a real danger to Albion.
He scored both goals against Huddersfield Town on the opening Monday of the season – and Darnell Furlong, who starred on his Baggies debut on Tuesday, may have to temper his attacking ambitions a little to make sure the threat of Lawrence is snuffed out.
Memory Lane - August 30, 2003
Whether it be the Baseball Ground or Pride Park – currently known as the iPro Stadium – Derby has hardly been a happy hunting ground for Albion over the past century.
In fact, since a 4-0 triumph at the Rams on December 20, 1919, the Baggies have managed just the one league win at County – suffering defeats of 9-3, 5-3 and 4-1, among others, along the way.
Rob Hulse provided Albion with their only bit of cheer in the past century, netting a late winner from Sean Gregan’s free-kick. Even then, the Rams were considered by some unlucky not to take anything that day.
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