63 mins: Ajayi hurtles into a 50/50 with Harvey Barnes and gets there second, sending the winger flying. Yellow card. The free-kick is a long way out but Tielemans batters it at goal, his powerful effort tipped over by Johnstone.
60 mins: Disallowed goal for Leicester. Barnes rattles a volley from the edge of the box and it hits Vardy’s back and loops into the goal, tapped in by Perez. But the unwitting Vardy was offside. Robson-Kanu comes on for Robinson – West Brom need to get through the next 10 minutes without conceding again.
Goal! West Brom 0-1 Leicester (Castagne 56)
Great goal. Leicester put together a wonderfully patient attack, Praet and Perez probing for openings before funnelling play out to Justin, who in turn finds Praet again down the inside left. The Belgian’s chipped cross floats over Johnstone and is met by the onrushing right-back who nods home from close range on his debut.
54 mins: The ever energetic Barnes scampers down the left flank but is eased off the ball by Furlong for a goal kick. A change looks imminent for West Brom: Robson-Kanu has arisen from the bench.
51 mins: Castagne looks for Praet but Livermore pounces and looks to release the isolated Callum Robinson, whose job is becoming ever more thankless. (The pass doesn’t reach him)
47 mins: Lovely feet from Diangana, who tried to release his left-back with a nifty drag-back and flick, but the pass is cut out and normal service is resumed, with Leicester hogging the ball and exerting gentle pressure.
46 mins: We’re back under way. Leicester knock it about at the back, with a few assured touches from Ndidi, who looks to have put his early nerves behind him.
Half-time thoughts? West Brom started really well but faded once Leicester’s midfield, in particular Youri Tielemans, was able to get their foot on the ball. But the Baggies do look dangerous when they manage to break – the question is whether they can keep the goals out at the other end, where Vardy and Barnes seem to be getting closer with each effort. The also have James Maddison to bring off the bench.
West Brom also have a fair bit of firepower to call on, not least Charlie Austin, who has almost as many top-flight goals to his name as the rest of the squad put together – not to mention the single greatest post-match interview in Premier League history:
45 mins: Wilfred Ndidi hoofs a bouncing ball aimlessly into the West Brom half. Bartley hoofs it aimlessly back. And Anthony Taylor blows up. Nil-nil.
Mary Waltz continues the discussion on managers’ wardrobes: “If you’re going to go for the ‘man of the people’ vibe, go full Bielsa: scruffy T-shirt and tracksuit pulled out of the bottom of the laundry bin. Or else go for the GQ Pep look. High-end track suit is just, well, tacky.”
40 mins: Not-so-good stuff from Soyoncu, who finds the ball breaking to him in the box following a Tielemans free-kick but lashes wildly over from an improbable angle.
35 mins: Good stuff from Soyuncu, who finds Praet with a drilled left-foot pass into opposition territory. West Brom recover possession but when Leicester next get the ball a poked pass from Perez sends Vardy running at the West Brom defence, and he twists sharply before rifling a vicious shot at Johnstone, who parries. He was offside, just, but that’s the first glimpse of Vardy’s ferocity.
32 mins: Another sight of goal for Barnes, this time a low shot from just inside the box, saved well, before the winger shins the rebound out for a goal kick. That one came at him very quickly. Leicester are turning the screw here.
29 mins: Dennis Praet breaks beyond the midfield again and Mendy picks him out nicely, only for a rusty first touch from the Belgian to scupper a possible one-on-one. But straight away Leicester mount another attack, Praet and Perez with a pinball exchange on the edge of the box, the former crossing for Barnes, who’s volleyed finish from 10 yards is straight at the keeper. He should have scored.
24 mins: Diverging wardrobe choices on the touchline: Rodgers decked out in club-branded polyester, T-shirt tucked into his trackie bottoms, while Bilic has gone for a very fetching all-black shirt and trousers combo, no tie. I’m afraid there’s only one winner. On the pitch, Periera shanks a long-ranger miles over the bar.
19 mins: Leicester immediately look lively as soon as Tielemans gets on the ball. This time he orchestrates a move that ends with Castagne picking out the onrushing Praet with a lovely outside-of-the-boot pass, but again the cross is pounced on by a hungry centre-back. Then Castagne swings a very tasty cross into the box from deep but there isn’t a striker in the vicinity.
… and wallops it into the side of Jamie Vardy’s head. The wall does its job.
14 mins: Full-back James Justin comes close to giving away a penalty, lunging in on Furlong who has latched on to a ball over the top. It’s just outside the box, and Justin gets away with a booking. But that was panicked defending from the youngster. Pereira stands over the free-kick…
“It seems that this is the season of the eccentric manager,” writes Ezra Finkelstein. “Both Leeds and West Brom have got managers who are probably as interesting, or in West Brom’s case, more interesting than the team they are managing.” Not so fast, Ezra – they look pretty interesting so far.
8 mins: Leicester’s turn to enjoy a bit of a foothold. Tielemans and Mendy make inroads into West Brom territory and some neat interplay down the right ends with Barnes hooking a cross towards Vardy, who’s crowded out.
It’s very early days but Bilic’s side look wonderfully assured so far, playing the ball out crisply from the back and working their way forward with real purpose, especially down their left flank.
5 mins: First real opening for West Brom as Diangana picks out the lively Robinson, whose low cross skitters right along the corridor of uncertainty with no takers.
3 mins: Another edgy moment from Ndidi, who badly mis-hits a backpass and gifts the hosts a corner. It’s headed away but this has not been the start he’d have liked. Eek.
Fighting talk from Chris East: “It seems everybody is going Leeds, Leeds, Leeds for a potential Europa league top six finish, but it was apparent relegation favourites West Brom that led the Championship for much of last season, at one stage by a country mile, so perhaps the Baggie’s will surprise us?”
Wilfred Ndidi is starting at centre-back for Leicester, for the first time ever, due to injuries. Ndidi is a terrific player but he’s a midfielder. Callum Robinson should be looking to take advantage of that. Pereira puts him under early pressure and he looks a tad nervy.
1 min: West Brom settle and put together their first meaningful spell of possession, switching the ball nicely to Furlong, who exchanges passes with the fleet-footed Diangana. Nothing comes of it but it’s a tidy move.
And we’re off
Anthony Taylor blows his whistle, the players take the knee, and then the game gets under way. West Brom’s first action in the top flight is to hoof the ball out for a throw-in.
Back in the real world, the teams are out, needlessly loud music is blared over the PA and handshakes are not exchanged. Kick-off imminent.
Russell Yong writes in: “There have been four St Kitts and Nevis internationals in the Premier League: Bobby Bowry and Sagi Burton for Crystal Palace, Adam Newton for West Ham and Calum Willock for Fulham. Bowry was the first, in the 1992-93 season. None have yet scored in the Premier League, though. Here’s hoping Romaine can be the first!”
Calum Willock, by the way, was a truly supreme footballing journeyman. His CV reads as follows: Fulham, QPR (loan), Bristol Rovers (loan), Peterborough United (loan), Peterborough United, Brentford, Port Vale, Stevenage Borough, Crawley Town, Cambridge United (loan), Ebbsfleet United, Dover Athletic, Boreham Wood, Harrow Borough (loan), Staines Town, Lewes, Dulwich Hamlet, Merstham, Farnborough, Cray Valley Paper Mills. Lovely stuff.
Bilic and Rogers have met just once before in the Premier League, and it did not end well for poor Brendan. Fortunately for him the assured Caglar Soyuncu is unlikely to endure the sort of nightmare Dejan Lovren did that day. Right…?
And for the sake of balance:
So Bilic opts to keep Hal Robson-Kanu and Charlie Austin on the bench (20 goals between them last season) in favour of young Irishman Callum Robinson (three goals last season). In defence, the top-flight experience of Ahmed Hegazi is omitted for the grizzled knowhow of Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi. And is midfielder Romaine Sawyers the Premier League’s first St Kitts and Nevis international? Answers on a postcard.
As for Leicester, Timothy Castagne makes his debut following an £18m move from Atalanta and James Maddison is fit enough only for the bench. But it’s a strong bench, and in Tielemans, Barnes, Perez and Vardy, it’s a front four of out-and-out attackers as well. The formation? Your guess is as good as mine.
West Brom: Johnstone, Furlong, Gibbs, O’Shea, Bartley, Ajayi, Sawyers, Livermore, Diangana, Pereira, Robinson.
Subs: Button, Hegazi, Harper, Edwards, Grosicki, Robson-Kanu, Austin.
Leicester: Schmeichel, Justin, Castagne, Soyuncu, Ndidi, Mendy, Praet, Tielemans, Barnes, Perez, Vardy.
Subs: Ward, Maddison, Albrighton, Iheanacho, Choudhury, Fuchs, Thomas.
Leicester flying high in second place! Brendan Rodgers in contention for manager of the year! A top-four finish nailed on! Global pandemics confined to implausible dystopian fiction!
Seems a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? In fact, it wasn’t all that long: a little less than half a football season, in fact. This year. But since then the mighty Foxes have seen their own steep downturn in form, a brutal raft of injuries, the rapid resurgence of Manchester United, the more slow-burn resurgence of Spurs and Arsenal, a 33rd birthday for Jamie Vardy, and a terrifying summer transfer splurge from Chelsea.
And suddenly Leicester’s new normal looks a lot like the old normal: trying to keep pace with the moneyed elite while having their best players cherry-picked from under their nose: Ben Chilwell’s summer departure the most obvious consequence of their failure to make the top four.
Maybe they should have taken some tips from Slaven Bilic’s Baggies, who kept up their momentum through the winter, up to lockdown and after the restart to seal second place and promotion with relative ease. Their return to the top flight is hugely welcome, not just for the heavy-metal machismo of Bilic but because of his side’s similarly boisterous playing style.
Thought Leeds were fun? This lot scored as many goals last season, and conceded 10 more too. To those ends, much focus be on Brazilian winger Matheus Periera, key to last season’s entertainment, and young playmaker Grady Diangana, another key creator and whose departure from east London had the West Ham captain up in arms.
Gone are the days, it seems, when promoted teams pin their hopes on two banks of four and a big lad up top. These days they tend to go out and play – and West Brom will certainly do that. As, of course, will Rodgers’ Leicester, who if nothing else tend to guarantee fun. So this should be a blast. Get the kettle on.