Déjà vu, all over again.
The AMEX under lights. Visitors from West London dominating early exchanges, before conceding from a set piece, then getting swept away.
The Albion's incredible run goes on, with another massive win - but not without a tense opening. It took the Seagulls half an hour to click - careless in possession, and suffering a collective loss of composure, in the face of Rangers' high tempo pressing. Time and again, a poor first touch, or a hurried pass, saw the ball turned over. Even the brilliant Bruno suffered - his first half performance a throwback to his error-strewn efforts of previous seasons.
That Rangers were held at arm’s length through this spell, was chiefly down to a sensational defensive midfield display from Dale Stephens – everywhere – winning the ball – breaking up play – preventing the visitors from settling into any comfortable possession. He never does anything overly clever, Stephens, so his work can go unnoticed, but he is in superb form right now. His selfless efforts are appreciated by those that matter – Inigo Calderon, asked for his personal choice for Player of the Season, had no hesitation in including the Albion number 6 alongside Bruno.
The first scare of the game came at the ‘wrong’ end. Bruno dallied on the ball, and lost out to Matt Phillips, whose crisp low drive was saved well by David Stockdale. Anthony Knockaert and Connor Washington each sent the ball high over the bar from close range – rare big moments in what had become a lengthy bout of head tennis. Each side had a free header from a corner – both Clint Hill and then Lewis Dunk directing straight at the keeper.
And then, with the half ticking away, a moment of magic to finally light the evening’s fuse. As Jiri Skalak waited under a high ball, 20 yards from goal, Nedum Onouha clambered over him to head it away. Skalak and Knockaert stood either side of the dead ball – the left / right foot options leaving keeper Alex Smithies hedging his bets in the centre of the goal. Knockaert pull rank, took one step, and swept the ball over the wall, and into the top right corner.
Beautiful goal. Beautiful timing. Happy half time.
One change at the break – the lively James Wilson feeling a twinge, so replaced by Sam Baldock – returning after a few weeks out with hamstring issues. A forced change, but an effective one, as Baldock’s clever movement and willing running stretched the QPR back line. Such strength and options on the Albion bench right now.
The Albion started the second period so much better than the first – the relaxed and assured passing was back – last year’s Bruno had been transformed back into the brilliant one. For all the intelligent play though, the defining moment of the evening came from a long ball forward. Bruno knocked it long, seeking Baldock over the top – but finding only the head of former Albion reserve Grant Hall. A poor header though – distance poor, and into the middle of the pitch, where Skalak waited. The Czech winger allowed it to bounce, and then unfurled his body to release an absolute hammer of a volley, that flashed past the helpless Smithies. Jiri!!!!!
What. A. Goal! A belter. A goal so good, that the club’s Goal of the Season list had to be quickly re-edited and re-issued. A list without this stunner would have made the voting a sham. Oh. My. Word.
When the side had extricated themselves from the massive bundle on top of the delirious Skalak, they trotted back to halfway and set about the last 35 minutes with a real swagger. Rangers resolve broken – time left to entertain.
Baldock chased a lost cause, winning a corner on the left. Knockaert swung it over, where Connor Goldson rose high above the static Onouha, to plant a header in the top corner. Goldson slid to the North Stand. Another mass bundle. Another wild celebration. Another nibble into the top two’s unassailable goal difference advantage.
Time for one more? Go on then. Patient build up down the right between Bruno, Knockaert and sub Steve Sidwell – the ball rolled back to the Frenchman, who shifted it to his left and slid it low into the far corner. Just as Fulham had, Rangers fumed over an offside injustice – the ball passing close to Jamie Murphy six yards out – just like Fulham their pleas were unfounded and rightly ignored. A second knee slide of the evening for French Tony, chest out, arms outstretched. El Punal levels of swagger.
A late Burnley leveller at home to Boro keeps them above the Albion, but only on goal difference now. What a season. Such drama. Incredible stuff.