Burley and Hislop preview West Brom v Aston Villa
You could hardly find two more contrasting fortunes in the Premier League this season: West Brom, punching above their weight in the top half of the table, are occupying the spot Aston Villa fans will believe is rightly theirs. And the Villans will have a chance to prove that on Saturday - live on ESPN at 17.30 GMT - in the Midlands derby at the Hawthorns.
Much has been made of the Baggies’ excellent start to the season and the magic worked by manager Steve Clarke. However, the fixture comes as the club now find themselves in their worst run of 2012-13 - five matches without a win - following the 1-0 FA Cup replay defeat at home to Queens Park Rangers.
The wheels have fallen off somewhat, and they have not won a game since Boxing Day. A recent total of two wins from 11 is not the kind of form that ensures a side stays in European contention, but Clarke was bullish when asked how to turn things around. “The best way to get it out of our system will be against Aston Villa on Saturday,” he said.
The return of key midfielder Claudio Yacob after six weeks out injured could lift West Brom, while Shane Long’s recovery from a dead leg will also be key to their chances.
Still, the Baggies should go into the game in confident mood as they face a Villa side who have plummeted into the bottom three under Paul Lambert; losing half their 22 games in the league to date and netting the fewest goals (17) while conceding the most (42). Stats may sometimes lie, but Villa fans will agree that the season has been a horror show so far, and their away form - two wins in 19 - has been a major reason for that.
Only new Belgian striker Christian Benteke has really provided any silver lining, scoring six goals in the Premier League. But it is a different story elsewhere in the team, as Villa have failed to score in four of their last five league games and their total of 10 games without scoring this season is a league high.
With QPR and Reading signing reinforcements in January, Villa need to turn a corner quickly. As Birmingham Mail writer Mat Kendrick said this week: "If Aston Villa carry on this way it is sure-fire relegation" - and a win over their local rivals is the only way to get the wheels of revival rolling.
West Brom player to watch - Romelu Lukaku With four goals in his last four games, the giant Belgian striker has well and truly announced himself in the English game. Highly-rated by Chelsea when they signed him from Anderlecht, Lukaku has proved he can cope with the physical demands of the league and will surely have a field day against a shaky Villa defence.
Aston Villa player to watch - Andreas Weimann. Somewhat overshadowed by the fact his strike partner Benteke has exploded onto the scene, the Austrian has turned himself into one of Villa’s most important players. The former Rapid Vienna youngster boasts bags of stamina and commitment and has also proved to be a fine finisher. If Villa are to compete, Weimann must shine.
Key battle: Claudio Yacob v Charles N’Zogbia.
A battle for central supremacy will take place. Yacob had been one of the star performers for the Baggies this season before his injury and, in the absence of Youssouf Mulumbu, will be tasked with ensuring that the opposition’s attacks are broken up. N’Zogbia made it clear this week that a commitment to attacking football is the only way Villa can escape relegation this season, but the Frenchman, who has been deployed in a central role since returning from injury, will need to raise his game if he is to help.
Trivia: The 19 points they have claimed to date is Aston Villa's lowest-ever haul after 22 matches of a Premier League season; 33 points after 22 games is West Brom's best-ever total after the same number of games.
Stats: After winning none of the first nine Premier League meetings with Villa (W0 D4 L5), West Brom are unbeaten in their last four (W2 D2 L0). Aston Villa have won just one of their last 12 Midlands derbies (W1 D8 L3) since beating West Brom in December 2010.
Odds: West Brom (1.66), Aston Villa (5.00) and the draw (3.75) are on offer with bet365, while a 2-0 win for Villa comes in at 23.00.
Prediction: West Brom have been in poor form of late, but Villa are on a slide that will surely only end in relegation. If the away side claim a point, they will have done well.