Analysis: Brilliant West Brom in love with the Championship
The challenge of managing in the Championship has captivated Slaven Bilic from the moment he was appointed Albion’s head coach.
The Croatian enjoys the relentlessness of the division as well as the test of playing against teams with such different footballing philosophies each week.
And in many ways, this clash against Cardiff summed up exactly why Bilic is enjoying life so much in English football’s second tier.
For 70 minutes, he got to watch as his Baggies side played some truly breathtaking football.
In a style that is the polar opposite to what supporters became used to under Tony Pulis, Albion moved the ball beautifully by playing out from the back.
Centre-backs Semi Ajayi and Kyle Bartley continued to collect the ball from Sam Johnstone.
Nathan Ferguson, Darnell Furlong, Jake Livermore and Romaine Sawyers always made sure they had options.
And yet it wasn’t until Albion had moved the ball through the first two-thirds that the magic really began.
In Matheus Pereira and Grady Diangana, this team has two players who are worth the admission fee alone.
But while they are both individually brilliant – together they bring the best out of each other – with the pair naturally in sync and on the same wavelength.
Pereira and Diangana would ultimately combine for Albion’s opener.
Yet the side Bilic has built is a threat all over the park.
And they were hugely unfortunate not to open the scoring through Charlie Austin just moments before Pereira’s strike.
The striker connected perfectly with a wonderful Matt Phillips cross.
Very simply, he couldn’t have done anything better or differently.
But Alex Smithies made himself big with only the keeper’s outstretched leg stopping the ball from crossing the line.
Just a minute later, though, and Albion were ahead.
Pereira cut in from the right and then played a neat one-two with Diangana to make himself some space 25 yards out.
And he then showed his class by curling the ball past the outstretched arm of Smithies and into the back of the net.
By now, Albion were dominating possession, with Cardiff happy for their threat to come from set-plays or counter-attacks launched with long balls. All the momentum, however, was with the Baggies.
And Austin was spectacularly denied by Smithies once again when he swept a Diangana cross towards goal from close range.
The crowd’s reaction to that miss, though, summed up how they feel about this team and group of players.
Austin’s name immediately reverberated around The Hawthorns.
Supporters could see how hard he was trying and how close he was to scoring that first league goal.
They also knew, with the way their team were playing, more chances would arrive.
And incredibly – just like the first time Austin was denied – Albion went on to score just seconds later.
Again it arrived in spectacular fashion, with Livermore first doing well to win the ball in the middle of the park before driving forward.
And he then found Diangana, who lashed it into the corner from 25 yards.
Bilic’s side continued to be well on top as the clock ticked towards the 70-minute mark.
But they were then given a warning of the drama that was about to unfold.
Robert Glatzel rose highest to head in a free-kick from Marlon Pack.
The German striker was adamant he had scored and at 2-1 signalled to Cardiff’s fans that it was game on.
But the linesman ruled the effort out for offside in what must have been an incredibly tight call.
And that decision went on to prove way more important than it should have been.
Albion looked to have responded in the right way when Austin raced through just seconds later to score the goal he and the home supporters craved.
What happened next, though, sums up why the Championship is such a strong league.
Albion had been by far the superior team. They also had a three-goal cushion.
But unquestionably they switched off and took their foot off the gas, thinking the game was won. And that at is something you cannot do against a side as dogged and determined as Cardiff.
Some lacklusture defending ended with Danny Ward pulling a goal back for the visitors.
Then with five minutes to go, the striker scored again when he headed in a corner.
From a position of pure dominance, Albion had somehow made The Hawthorns incredibly anxious – with the momentum now all with Cardiff. And they had to survive a couple of late corners before Sawyers netted in stoppage time to ease the tension once and for all.
In truth, the 4-2 scoreline actually flattered Cardiff.
Over the course of the 90 minutes, nobody was in any doubt as to who was the superior side with the better players.
But this is the Championship. And you can take nothing for granted. Every team in the division has quality players who can hurt you in the blink of an eye.
And they are also willing to fight to the end and pounce on any weakness.
For 70 minutes this had been one game, but for 20 minutes it had been another.
And very simply that should not happen. At 3-0 up, the Baggies should have seen this game out with a clean sheet.
Absolutely everyone, though, knows the positives of this Albion side far outweigh any weaknesses.
They are a brilliant footballing side, who create chances, score goals and will be in the race for automatic promotion.
There are still improvements to be made.
But Bilic and his coaching staff are in a luxurious position of being able to make them while the team continues to win games and sits top of the Championship.