West Brom v Nottingham Forest – Tricky mid-week test for Albion
Under normal circumstances, Darren Moore would stick with the side who ground out a win against Stoke.
But Albion are in the throes of a frenetic February – this is the fourth fixture in a gruelling run of eight games in 28 days.
Tonight’s match against Nottingham Forest comes just 74 hours after that battling win in the Potteries and there is also the small matter of a trip to Villa Park on Saturday to keep in mind.
What’s more, Albion’s new signings are not completely match sharp yet.
Stefan Johansen admitted to feeling tired towards the end of his debut and Jacob Murphy took huge kick to the ankle in the second half that forced him to spend some of the weekend in a protective boot.
On top of that, Gareth Barry turns 38 next week. It is too much to ask him to play three games in a week.
“That’s what you’ve got the squad for,” said Moore. “We’ll look at the condition and the shape of the players and make our decision off that.
“It’s a demanding league, the players and staff understand it. Recovery is important.”
The good news for Moore is he now has back-up players he can trust.
Rekeem Harper and Sam Field have proved themselves in recent weeks during a midfield injury crisis and Moore will not hesitate to use them if necessary.
“Yes, they have matured,” he agreed. “We feel they’re stronger, physically they’ve got better, they’ve got used to the speed.”
At least one, and maybe both, could be called into action tonight.
Further forward, Murphy may need to shake off his bruises because Matt Phillips and Hal Robson-Kanu remain sidelined through injury.
If he is unable to, it could lead to a first start for Jefferson Montero.
After four clean sheets in their last eight league games, the back five – including Sam Johnstone – are unlikely to change.
And Albion could use another clean sheet, particularly at The Hawthorns, where form has been patchy recently.
The Baggies have won six out of their last seven on the road, but just one of their last six at home.
Perhaps this team is more comfortable on the back foot, without the added pressure of a home crowd, or perhaps opposing teams set up differently at The Hawthorns.
Whatever the reason, Albion need to turn their home draws into wins if they want to catch the top two.
Forest have their own designs on promotion, especially after the money they spent in summer, and Moore is not taking Martin O’Neill’s men lightly.
“Martin’s gone there recently and he brings a wealth of experience, it can almost feel like going back home for him,” said Moore.
“They’ve got some wonderful players and gave us a right good game at the start of the season. We’ll have to be at our absolute best against them.”
The opposition - Demanding task for returning hero
Martin O'Neill received a hero’s reception when he returned to the City Ground last month.
A double European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest as a player, the 66-year-old finally landed his dream job after more than 30 years in management.
It was a warmly-received appointment in the East Midlands, but one that raised eyebrows elsewhere for its sentimentality.
After half-a-decade in international football managing the Republic of Ireland, it’s been almost six years since O’Neill has been a coach in club football.
But O’Neill is refusing to live on past glories and is aware of the pressure to deliver promotion to Forest after a hefty summer spending spree.
It was that pressure, after all, that did for his predecessor Aitor Karanka.
“The club has a great history and that is phenomenal,” said O’Neill, when he was unveiled. “But it is two generations now since the team was in the Premier League.
“I have to do this now. Time is pressing. No-one gets any time these days and the minute you step into a football club, it doesn’t matter, you’re expected to get going immediately.”
His first four games yielded mixed results – two wins, and two defeats. It leaves Forest five points off the play-off places and eight behind the Baggies.
The Tricky Trees – as they were known in O’Neill’s playing days – have struggled on their travels recently and, should they lose tonight, it will be the first time they have lost five away games in a row since 2010.
But Middlesbrough frustrated Albion at The Hawthorns last time out and, on Saturday, Forest proved they were capable of winning ugly when they beat Brentford 2-1 at home with just 30 per cent possession and nine shots to 21.
O’Neill has already stamped his authority on his team and dropped £15million man Joao Carvalho at the weekend.
However, the Portuguese midfielder may return to the starting line-up tonight as O’Neill prepares to freshen up his squad.
“This league is so demanding,” he admitted. “I am finding that out. I have only been here a couple of weeks, but it is unbelievably demanding. So we will have a look at things for Tuesday.”
Claudio Yacob will return to The Hawthorns for the first time since he was released in the summer and will no doubt get a warm reception after six successful years in the Albion engine room.
But he faces competition from Ben Watson and Jack Colback in the holding roles.
“We do have options with Jack Colback and Yohan Benalouane coming back from suspension,” said O’Neill. “Yohan is getting better every single day.”
Albion key man – Jay Rodriguez
The Baggies may need to break down a stubborn Forest team and will look to Jay Rodriguez to drop deep from up front and lay the ball off to runners. He's also one goal behind Dwight Gayle in the race for top scorer, and will be desperate to draw level.
Forest dangerman – Joe Lolley
The former Kidderminster Harriers player has been in electric form this season, scoring eight goals and setting up eight more. Lewis Grabban may be top scorer, but Lolley is the creative hub of this team. Signed by Albion technical director Luke Dowling when he was at Forest, the Baggies retain an interest in him.
Jason Roberts scored twice in a 3-0 win over Forest at The Hawthorns on December 23, 2000. Albion finished sixth that season.
The boss says
"It’s always good to play in front of your home fans. Hopefully they will be in good voice. There’s no place like The Hawthorns when it’s at full volume."