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Ajayi & Niang: Can West Brom pair derail Liverpool’s Champions League push?

17:00 BST 15/05/2021
Ajayi Klopp Diagne
The Albion pair may have suffered the ignominy of relegation, but they ought to relish the possibility of scuppering the Reds’ momentum

Despite West Bromwich Albion’s Premier League relegation, a few teams in the top half of the table will hope Sam Allardyce’s side are up for the fight when Liverpool visit on Sunday afternoon.

Leicester City’s win at Manchester United on Tuesday and Chelsea’s surprising defeat by Arsenal the following day opened up the possibility of Jurgen Klopp’s side finishing in the Champions League positions.

Thursday night saw Klopp record a timely first victory at Old Trafford, a rescheduled game that was the Merseyside club’s toughest on paper in their run-in. The lifeline presented by Thomas Tuchel’s team's slip-up means the dethroned champions will end in the top four if they win their remaining games this season.

First up for last year’s Premier League champions are West Bromwich Albion, a team Liverpool won’t have fond memories against after events in the reverse fixture and what ensued afterwards.

Having thrashed Crystal Palace 7-0 before Christmas, the Anfield giants were expected to wipe the floor with Sam Allardyce’s troops on Merseyside in their penultimate game of 2020.

However, Semi Ajayi had other ideas on the day, levelling for the visitors with eight minutes of normal time to play as it surprisingly ended 1-1. That stalemate began a run of five successive PL winless games for the then-defending champions and a bizarre run without a home victory for nearly four months.

While that Ajayi header to secure a huge draw against the league’s best side at the time couldn’t quite propel West Brom to safety in the end, the towering centre-back wouldn’t forget the momentous effort for the rest of his career.

It was the 27-year-old’s first top flight goal and the timing of the effort couldn’t have been better. Despite scoring 12 times in his final two seasons in the Championship, the West African has had to make do with only two goals in the big time so far.

Be that as it may, the importance of the strike at Anfield and his equalizer in a 3-2 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers in mid-January won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

Even though survival wasn’t achieved in the end, the centre-back wasn’t embarrassed in his maiden Premier League campaign. There’s been a significant drop in clean sheets this year (one) compared to 12 from last term, but no other teammate has had the defender’s volume of recoveries of possession this term.

He’s been the third most dominant player in aerial tussles and scored fewer than only four colleagues this season. The latter probably explains the Baggies’ issues this term: a side low on quality that let in a bucket-load of goals and lack match-winners when necessary.  

Perhaps the campaign may have panned out differently had Mbaye Diagne arrived sooner than he did in January. The Galatasaray loanee’s three PL strikes don’t quite do justice to the influence and menace he’s carried since his temporary switch to English football.

After lacking a natural goal scorer for the majority of the season, the Senegal frontman’s profile ostensibly fit into the classic Allardyce approach. His physical style meant opposing centre-backs weren’t given a moment’s rest and his hustling nature helped the side gain momentum out of nothing.

Despite Diagne’s relative success, a black mark on the frontman has been a penchant for missing fairly presentable chances that have cost the Albion. Statistics reveal the frontman has failed to tuck away 11 opportunities categorised as ‘clear-cut chances’ ranking among the top players in this unwanted group.

The fact the on-loan striker arrived around the mid-way point further exacerbates his poor finishing, which somewhat contradicts the aforementioned praise. Regardless, Diagne’s arrival allowed West Bromwich supporters to hold onto hope of beating the drop for a while longer.

Having already netted against Man United and Chelsea, the West African marksman will love to hit the back of the net against another top side before departing English football.

While Ajayi and Diagne had decent-to-good campaigns, Grady Diangana had an underwhelming return to top flight football. West Ham United supporters were incandescent after the Hammers sold the talented 23-year-old in the summer, but his performances in a struggling Albion side haven’t quite made the London side rue their decision to cash in last year.

He was a favourite of Slaven Bilic, featuring in 11 of the 13 games under the Croat, but has seen appearances decline under the ex-England manager. While a thigh muscle strain ruled him out of nearly every game in January and most of the following month, Diangana’s only featured twice since the end of February, with the second coming off the bench last time out at Arsenal.

It’s not been as promising a campaign as the youngster may have envisaged, but he could still end a challenging year on a positive note in the Albion’s final three games.

While survival hasn’t been achieved, the Baggies' three Africans can still claim a major scalp before their eventual departure from the league. If they get something from the encounter vs Liverpool this weekend, expect supporters of Leicester and Chelsea to breathe huge sighs of relief at the Baggies throwing a spanner in the works of the Reds’ late surge.