Back in the summer, you may have forgiven the Albion faithful for getting excited about the first Black Country derby in nine years. After all, Albion’s last visit to the Molineux ended in a resounding 1-5 victory for Roy Hodgson’s men. Albion then went onto solidify their Premier League status, whereas Wolves went from crisis to crisis, ending up in League One.
Nine years on, the two clubs remain in two very different situations. The tables have turned. Wolves come off the back of two top-seven finishes since their reintroduction to the top flight, while Albion bounced back from relegation in two seasons and are fighting for survival.
The Wolves squad is undoubtedly of high quality and full of European experience; the likes of Ruben Neves, Raul Jimenez, Joao Moutihno and Rui Patricio have really come to define Nuno Espirito Santo’s project at Molineux.
Albion’s squad, meanwhile, is lacking in quality; Sam Johnstone has impressed, as have Conor Gallagher and Semi Ajayi at times, but everybody else seems to be falling short of what is needed.
From this, it is pretty clear that Wolves are favourites on paper. But, it is a strange season and a historic derby, so anything can happen, right?
Albion’s injury situation could be better and it could be worse. Conor Townsend and Karlan Grant remain sidelined with longer-term injuries, but Kieran Gibbs, Jake Livermore and Kyle Bartley all look to be in contention for returns to the starting XI after some time out.
Irish international Dara O’Shea has not performed poorly but with Bartley getting some game time vs. Blackpool, Allardyce might opt for a more experienced defender given the stature of the fixture.
But while there are plenty of options at the back, Albion might struggle further up the pitch.
Charlie Austin has joined QPR on loan for the rest of the season, while there has been little news on if and when Hal Robson-Kanu might return to the side. That leaves just Callum Robinson as the only available forward, so it is likely Allardyce bulk up the midfield.
Chelsea loanee Conor Gallagher will not form a part of this midfield however, after picking five yellow cards this season. This could see Jake Livermore partnered once again with Romaine Sawyers, a combination that worked so well last season.
Matt Phillips seems to be enjoying his football once again, so will likely start in front of Darnell Furlong, while Matheus Pereira moves into his favoured number 10 position.
It will be interesting to see whether Allardyce lets Phillips continue as captain, or if Livermore will take up the armband once again, as he did vs. Blackpool.
Albion’s Predicted XI: (4-4-1-1)
Nuno has his own injury crisis going on at the moment. We were all horrified to see the extent of Jimenez’s head injury earlier on in the season and we are all glad to hear is he recovering well.
But there is no doubt that Wolves are struggling without him; while Fabio Silva has not played badly, it is clear at just 18 years of age he is not yet ready for the full force of the Premier League.
Adama Traore also missed Wolves’ fixture vs. Everton in mid-week due to a hamstring injury – Albion’s defence will be hoping he remains sidelined because if he is back, then it will be Gibbs’ hamstrings that decide to pack it in.
Central defender Willy Boly also remains sidelined; however, attacker Patrick Cutrone looks set to return after a spell on the sidelines.
Wolves’ Predicted XI: (4-3-3)
The Game Plan
Both teams are without their main attacking outlets and so to no surprise, both teams are enduring a woeful period in form. Albion look as though they need three points more than anyone, but Wolves are certainly in need of a result too. Though they are not in danger of relegation, 14th place is far from where they will want to be, so Nuno and his men will be looking at this fixture as a potential kick-start for the rest of the season.
Silva, Cutrone and Neves are all threats in front of goal and should not be taken lightly, but they are certainly weaker going forward.
However true this may be, Sam will tell his men to keep things tight at the back, with Sawyers and Pereira to be play key roles in getting the ball moving quickly in transition.
Albion’s play in transition has been woeful this season, highlighted by Allardyce, so expect to see some improvements defensively when any attack breaks down.
Albion’s ratio of defence to attack will likely depend on Traore’s involvement, however. If he is out, Albion may have more license to go forward. If he plays, they may just have to sit back and stop him at all costs.
It will be a tight game, or at least Big Sam will try and make it so. Both teams are in a rough spot and given the significance and history of the fixture, might just be willing to settle for a draw.
Prediction: Wolves 1-1 West Brom