When the coronavirus put a standstill to football in March, leaving many leagues in limbo as to how to decide their campaigns if the season couldn’t be restarted, conversation surrounded deciding the title (if it was still in play), European spots and, particularly, promotion and relegation.
In England, the latter was discussed extensively given the state of the Championship standings at the time: Leeds United, absent from the Premier League since 2004, and West Bromwich Albion were seven and six points ahead of third-placed Fulham, and 10 in front of Brentford and Nottingham Forest who were joint-fourth.
Would the top two sides occupying the promotion spots ultimately miss out after their largely dominant campaigns?
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Three gameweeks after, Leeds and West Bromwich are ahead of the side in third with six and five points respectively, with the gap only being reduced by a point since the return.
However, recent doubts surrounding The Albion keeping hold of their automatic spot has crept in, considering the form of the side in third.
Brentford, 10 points behind before football’s suspension, had reduced the chasm between them and Slaven Bilic’s troops to two points, before the latter played Sheffield Wednesday on Wednesday, after a run of three wins on the trot (four if you add the Bees’ 5-0 defeat of Wednesday in early March).
WBA, though, just when it seemed they were collapsing, responded with a hugely significant 3-0 success at Hillsborough Stadium, restoring their five-point advantage.
Interestingly, Slaven Bilic made a change at centre-back as the Baggies returned to winning ways: dropping Semi Ajayi, to pair Ahmed Hegazy and Kyle Bartley in central defence.
In fairness, that move wasn’t the reason the away side triumphed. After all, the Nigerian had played well when the West Midlands club kept their 10th and 11th clean sheets of the year against Swansea City and Birmingham City, so it's likely to just been a case of Bilic resting the Super Eagle.
Indeed, statistics show Bilic has an impressive trio in central defence, with little separating Ajayi, Bartley and Hegazy. Even though the towering Englishman leads the way for tackles, interceptions and clearances per game (1.4, 1.2 and 4.7 per match), the Egypt and Nigeria internationals aren’t slouches either, with Hegazy’s reading 1.2, 0.9 and 4.1 respectively, while Ajayi posts 1.0 tackles and interceptions per game, with 3.4 clearances per match.
The West African is the team’s joint-sixth top scorer with five, better than Bartley and the North African, while he wins 63 percent of his duels, better than the Pharaohs’ top centre-half and edged by the former Swansea City man (67 percent).
Frankly, The Albion’s recent issues aren’t defensively but in attack.
Their run of four games without scoring against Wigan Athletic, Swansea, Birmingham and the Bees either side of the pandemic is why Thomas Frank’s side have been given hope of reining in Ajayi and co. in the final weeks of the campaign.
The odds of the side from Greater London have been boosted given the imperious form of the remarkably talented Said Benrahma, the Algeria star whose playmaking has been instrumental in Brentford boasting the best attack in the division (70).
Interestingly, Brentford also possess the joint-stingiest backline in the competition, letting in 33 goals alongside Leeds, and since finding consistency, they've been hot on the heels of the top two.
With the stars seemingly aligning for the Bees at the right moment, West Bromwich, the second-highest scorers in the league, need to dispatch struggling Hull City at the Hawthorns on Sunday to record successive wins for the first time since February.
Bilic’s troops have tended to go on commendable runs after setbacks this season, and defeating the Tigers, who just ended a 14-game winless run vs Middlesbrough on Thursday, is the expectation before kick-off.
However, with two blanks in their last two home games against Birmingham and Wigan, the Albion have to be third-time lucky to prevent another surprising defeat, especially with Derby County, the league’s form side to come after Hull.
West Bromwich remain in pole position to secure automatic promotion with their Nigerian colossus anticipated to play a major part in the run-in. Still, the Baggies’ recent problems higher up the pitch will make or mar their automatic promotion joust.