With the good ship Albion steadied by the professional win at rock-bottom Rotherham midweek, it was back to the Amex with a sense of calm confidence restored. Derby County the visitors - a team packed with star names, but on a wretched run of form.
The Albion unchanged, bar Murray for Hemed - standard Hughton 4-4-2, with last season's go-to midfield pairing of Dale Stephens and Beram Kayal in the centre, and Jiri Skalak preferred on the left over the decent claims of March and Murphy.
Steve McClaren's Rams set-up, rather less standard. Steve had either reached pure desperation levels in his efforts to boost his side's woeful scoring record, or he'd found a left-over stash of the good stuff, from his time in Holland. Tasked with fitting Vydra, Bent, Ince and Nugent into something resembling a team, Steve decided to play them all up front. Kind of like running a Sunday League team, when if you're lucky enough to have more than 11 show up, you'd always just pick the best eleven players, and THEN worry about where to play them.
In theory at least, Vydra was deployed on the left, Ince on the right. Neither did much to assist the lightweight central pair of Butterfield and de Sart, leaving a straight 2 v 2 battle in the middle - the kind of battle Kayal and Stephens inevitably win, hands down.
Had Derby nicked an early lead, perhaps things might have worked out, but it was, in truth, a wretched team set-up, doomed to failure. In stark contrast, the Albion were on it from the first minute – Skalak bringing the Amex to its collective feet just moments in – firing just wide after a darting run. They needn’t have sat down. Two minutes later, (yet another) moment of genius from Anthony Knockaert. ‘Le Petit Magicien’ was second favourite to reach Bruno’s short pass, but dazzled past de Sart in the blink of an eye, before crashing a low drive an inch inside Scott Carson’s near post. Absolutely magnificent.
As a contented hum rose around the Amex, the Rams mustered their best chance of the night – the enterprising Cyrus Christie clipping a decent cross into Darren Bent – the former Albion loanee heading into the ground, and up over the bar. A couple of oohs, but David Stockdale had it covered. The Derby fans had a 30 second sing-song - decent numbers, boosted by the benevolence of their strange owner, who’d paid their travel and subsidised their tickets. They’ll be glad to have saved a few quid – whatever they paid, they still got poor value from their team.
Contrary to some reports, the focus ought not to be on how poor Derby were – Friday night was all about the Albion – collectively superb – a rock-solid back four denying the Rams a single effort on target – Kayal and Stephens owning the centre of the park – Skalak and Knockaert combining flair with work-rate – Baldock buzzing everywhere – Murray looking a man against boys.
Literally ten plausible MotM candidates – Stockdale faultless but redundant. So little did Stockdale have to do, that he clearly decided he no longer requires both of his hands…
A succession of chances, through a one-sided first period – Baldock denied by a block – a couple of headers close from corners – a dazzling run from Liam Rosenior, clearly delighted to be back in the fold, and playing with all the exuberance of a man ten years younger. Glenn Murray, completely dominant in the air all evening, ought to have doubled the lead – perfect cross from Skalak onto his forehead – a yard over.
Those chances passed up, were of small consequence – pressure soon made to tell. Bruno in to Murray, on the edge of the box. Julien de Sart toed the ball away from him, but into the path of Sam Baldock. The number nine took a touch, before calmly side-footing past the exposed Carson, into the bottom corner. Assured.
Almost three, before the break – Baldock released down the left – into the box – a shot drilled across the face, just evading Murray’s slide. A rare attack for the visitors came to nothing – low cross cut out by the stretching Uwe Hunemeier. A fine performance from the big German - faultless all evening.
Uwe and Rosenior were not the only ones returning with a flourish in this game. Beram Kayal technically has featured a few times since his comeback from injury – but not THIS Beram Kayal. This was the proper one – King Kayal is back, just when we need him. He was everywhere – tackling anything that moved, visibly angry if anyone in a washed out turquoise shirt dared touch HIS ball. Imperious display.
McLaren sorted his team out a bit at the interval – replacing the ineffectual de Sart with the industrious Craig Bryson, and swapping the anonymous Nugent with Will Hughes – often the Rams’ best performer against the Seagulls, and conspicuous by his absence at the start. The replacements probably improved the away side a little, but they continued to play like this game was already beyond them, and Hughes cut an angry, frustrated figure as desperate long balls sailed over his head, and the game passed him by.
An hour in – Knockaert close to adding further to his incredible 13-goal tally. And what a goal it would have been – a half volley from fully 30 yards – tipped over by Carson. A screamer to rival the beauty Skalak hit 12 months ago, had it found the top corner.
Then the one single blemish on a near-perfect evening – captain Bruno lucky to avoid a booking for a late challenge, and then down for treatment – succumbing to the niggling groin strain he’s battled for a few games. Young Tomori on in his stead – and doing okay – more comfortable on his natural right – though happier heading it than using his feet. With Bong and Pocognoli yet to return, fingers crossed for the skipper’s swift return.
Lewis Dunk, the only remaining member of the first-choice back four left on the field, was bored of defending and enjoying his favourite quarterback role, switching angles from his usual raking diagonals, to chip balls down the left flank. One effort almost set Murray free, before a second perfectly weighted clip, led to a third goal – Knockaert running on to it and cushioning a volley cross into a corridor of uncertainty between Murray and Carson. Murray was quicker or braver – his right foot strike – kept out by Carson but pin-balling off the striker’s left knee and crashing into the net. The 18th of a hugely productive season.
Knockaert and Murray each left, to appreciative ovations – brief cameos afforded to Solly March and Tomer Hemed. Plenty of media focused on tonight’s devastating front three, and their collective 42 goals. That particular narrative is unfair – Hemed, also into double-figures, at the best goals-to-minutes ratio of the lot, is very much central to that story, too.
(Excellent) referee Mr Kavanagh called time on a fine Albion win – to celebrations on the pitch and in the stands.
A very poor night for Steve McClaren, turned out to be his last one in charge of the Rams – parting ways for a second time. His team selection did him no favours, though he argued that “It doesn’t matter what system we’d have played tonight. It is not about systems, tactics. They were far better than us. We were second best.” Hard to argue with his assessment - the players he sent out did nothing to help his cause.
For the good guys, another win, and another clean sheet, to add to a remarkable set of home stats. Four fixtures left at fortress-Amex – all favourable on paper, but all surely tougher in reality than this one. Teams who genuinely need points tend to fight so much harder for them, and Birmingham, Blackburn, Bristol City and Wigan are all mired in the relegation battle. Bring it on.