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Feb 12, 2014

West Brom must build on Chelsea draw

Three home games for Pepe Mel have brought three 1-1 draws against sides in the top seven. The challenge that presents itself now to the new manager is making sure Albion can re-produce these performances against the sides in and around them, both at The Hawthorns and away from home, and turn draws into wins.

After the shocking performance in defeat at Crystal Palace, it was good to see the players looking to rectify things with a high-energy, passionate display against Chelsea.

They had clearly taken Mel’s message that every game is now a cup final to heart and ran their socks off for 90 minutes. In fact, I’ve never seen so many players go down with cramp in normal time, but that was simply testament to the effort put in.

There was clearly a bit of extra needle to the game after the controversial late penalty given to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season and Jose Mourinho’s subsequent post-match jibes at Albion. Arguably, it was in that game where Albion’s season began taking a turn for the worse but hopefully Victor Anichebe's late equaliser at the Hawthorns is another turning point, this time for the better.

Albion need to use this as a platform to kick on from for the rest of the season rather than ruining all their good work by losing the next game against another relegation rival -- Fulham on February 22 -- like they did after draws with Everton and Liverpool.

Against Chelsea, there were signs that West Brom really are beginning to understand Mel’s methods. The defence looked far more solid in open play despite Billy Jones being absent and it was certainly the most complete performance so far under Mel, who once again must be given credit for making substitutions that changed the game.

It was a surprise to see Youssouf Mulumbu on the bench but Claudio Yacob once again did a good job protecting the back four for the first hour until Mel decided to press for an equaliser, at which point he introduced the Congolese, who isn’t a goalscorer by any stretch of the imagination but does supports attacks more often than Yacob and tends to find himself in good positions.

The other game-changing sub came with the introduction of Anichebe who, for the third successive home game made a big impact coming off the bench. His introduction came at a time when Albion were beginning to struggle to keep hold of the ball in Chelsea’s half but Anichebe soon changed that with some strong hold-up play and running and seemed to trouble David Luiz, who went from solid to erratic very quickly.

Of course, the main positive of the substitution was that Anichebe once again got himself in the right place at the right time to get the equaliser, glancing Saido Berahino’s inch-perfect cross past Petr Cech.

That was the Nigerian's thrid goal of the season and all of these have come against big clubs when he has come off the bench. One problem faced by Mel is that all of his striking options seem to play better coming off the bench rather than from the start. Matej Vydra’s one league goal this season came when he was bought on whilst Berahino has one goal from the start compared to three when he has come off the bench.

However, Mel may have found have a strike force that can do it from the start, as there were promising signs of understanding between Berahino and new loan signing Thievy Bifouma.

Neither is the the biggest in stature but both have pace in abundance, good control and quick feet. However, perhaps what makes them most threatening is how raw they are. They are unpredictable, which can at times be frustrating but it also makes them very dangerous.

Against Fulham, those two should be given another chance to combine in a game where West Brom will have more possession. Anichebe can be an alternative option from the bench if they fail to fire.

It seems Mel is getting closer to finding an established first XI, with the only problem positions being the right side and centre of midfield.

Morgan Amalfitano was given an opportunity on the right but did little to convince anyone he should be first choice, interspersing the odd moment of skill and quality with poor decision-making and petulant behaviour.

In the centre, it seems that Mel wants the creative impetus of James Morrison, which means only one of Yacob or Mulumbu can play from the start. Yacob breaks up play and offers more defensively than Mulumbu which may give him the advantage over Mulumbu initially.

I believe that the quicker the new man in charge decides on a first-choice XI, the quicker Albion will prosper. With a week’s warm weather training in Spain ahead, there should be the chance to make some final decisions and prepare for that huge clash with Fulham.

A win and would be massive and would certainly capitalise on the unexpected point gained against Chelsea.