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Baggies arrive in confident mood

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: November 28, 2012

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WEST Bromwich Albion's supporters are singing songs about an imminent "European tour" right now thanks to their extraordinary start to the season.

They get a taste of cross-border competition at the Liberty Stadium tonight with some on the outside waiting for the Baggies' bubble to burst.

As so often in recent years, West Brom were one of those sides being mentioned as contenders for the drop when the pundits were placing their bets at the start of the season.

Albion have regularly bounced between the top two divisions, so perhaps such predictions were understandable.

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They finished tenth under Roy Hodgson last season, a place higher than Swansea City in the table on goal difference.

When Hodgson quit for England and Steve Clarke got his job, a few more were prepared to forecast a campaign of doom and gloom at The Hawthorns.

Clarke, after all, was untested as a manager, despite having donkey's years of experience as a coach in the Premier League.

Naturally, the Scot would have felt from the outset that he could prove the doubters wrong.

But even he cannot have expected that things would go so well, so soon.

For Albion, the first third of the season has been spectacular.

Clarke, who had been on the staff at Liverpool before Brendan Rodgers sent him packing, announced himself as a manager with a 3-0 triumph over the Reds on the opening day of the campaign.

They have since taken the scalps of Everton, Reading, Queens Park Rangers, Southampton, Wigan, Chelsea and Sunderland, while there have been draws at Spurs and Aston Villa.

There have been just three league defeats to date, at home to Manchester City and away at Newcastle and Fulham.

It is West Brom's best start to a top-flight season since 1953 and, as a result, they sit third, behind only the two Manchester clubs.

Dizzy heights indeed.

Albion are currently better off than Chelsea, but they are not getting carried away just yet.

Clarke has accepted that Europe could be a possibility in the wake of last Saturday's win at Sunderland — the second away success in a row — yet he is still talking about the need to get to 40 points first.

The way his team are going, they will go through the traditional safety barrier at some point not long after Christmas.

Swansea's task is to ensure they do not get three points closer to the target this evening, to stop the Premier League's most unlikely success story in their tracks.

Albion arrive on the back of four successive league wins, and will be confident about their chances of making it five tonight even if Swansea are slight favourites with the bookmakers.

"We're third and we deserve to be there," Clarke points out.

"It's certainly not been a lucky start to the season. We've earned every point we've got."

Albion's success has come despite injury concerns in goal — Wales's Boaz Myhill plays tonight in the absence of first-choice Ben Foster — and without the club's owners throwing millions of pounds at the rest of the team.

Clarke's hungry, well-organised side are punching well above their weight right now when you consider the heavyweight fish they are swimming alongside at the top end of the table.

There are more gifted centre-backs than Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson in the Premier League, and more celebrated midfield players than Claudio Yacob — signed after a trial this summer — and Youssouf Mulumbu.

Yet all are delivering.

More forward-thinking midfield men like Zoltan Gera and James Morrison are in the form of their lives, while Albion's frontmen have been key to their early-season triumphs.

Romelu Lukaku, the giant Belgian who is on a season-long loan from Chelsea, looks a handful whenever he gets an opportunity, while Peter Odemwingie has not lost any of his goal threat despite being deployed in a wide role for the majority of the time by Clarke.

And then there is Shane Long, Albion's £6.5 million record signing, who is really starting to thrive in the top flight.

Swansea know all about the Irishman, having shackled him so successfully in the Championship play-off final 18 months ago.

He got his move to the Premier League that summer even though Reading stayed in the second tier, and is looking a better player with every game that passes right now.

"For sure, he can be a legend at West Brom," suggested a former great who wore Albion's No. 9 shirt, Cyrille Regis, last week.

Long, whose desire to succeed typifies this West Brom team, has scored seven goals and managed almost as many assists this season.

If Swansea can smother him like they did at Wembley last year, they will have gone a long way towards smothering Albion.

West Brom's visit to Wales should bring back good memories for Ashley Williams and Co, for it was just over 14 months ago that Swansea chalked up their first ever Premier League victory, a 3-0 success against tonight's opponents.

Brendan Rodgers's Swansea side also won the return fixture in the snow last February, so Albion may feel they are due a change of fortune against the side from SA1.

And, Long argues, they have a decent chance of extending getting it because of the work done by Clarke.

"Technically we're well prepared for games," says the former Cork City youngster. "We train all week long, all the sessions are brilliant and we learn every week.

"It's good for him that we're doing so well because it shows how good a manager he is."

Then again, Michael Laudrup is not doing too badly either in his debut season as a Premier League boss.

His team's battle with Clarke's overachievers should be good to watch.

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