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Dec 16, 2012

Baggies, Hammers cherish clean sheets

Left to their own devices, some football fans cause untold problems. Others simply amuse. In a stalemate with more atmosphere than action, the West Bromwich Albion supporters provided much of the entertainment. Displaying more creativity than plenty of the players on show, they adapted the lyrics to 'Popeye the Sailor Man' to 'Popov the Albion Man', saluting a Macedonian left-back who, if he heard the words, may be bemused by choruses alleging he lives in a caravan.

Yet there was a significance to Goran Popov; not so much in himself but because he was as part of a defence that was not breached. Neither was the other. It may be an exaggeration to call Steve Clarke and Sam Allardyce connoisseurs of clean sheets, but they are certainly men who recognise the importance of building from the back. Pragmatic principles serve both well.

Each earned one and picked up a point to bring awkward runs to an end. Albion had lost their previous three games, the worst spell of Clarke's brief and successful time at the helm. West Ham had been defeated in three of their four previous matches, all against the rich and famous. If there was any rot, it was stopped, and in familiar fashion.

Defensive strategists operate on the principle that sides who don't concede cannot lose, however, a theory that has served Allardyce well in a decade of top-flight management. Clarke's career as the main man is rather briefer but he has lent his organisational skills to Chelsea, Liverpool and West Ham. Now Albion are benefiting. "It was important to defend well for the clean sheet," Clarke said. "We haven't had one for a while. It does stop the run of defeats and it is another point towards the total we are trying to achieve."

Albion are a safety-first side who started off with a focus of solidity. The Hammers showed their steel in a second half when Clarke's side belatedly applied pressure. "Our defensive qualities were exceptionally good and that frustrated West Brom to little or no clear-cut chances," Allardyce said.

These are managers who have back fours without a great deal of pedigree on paper – Joey O'Brien is a converted midfielder, for instance, while Billy Jones and Gareth McAuley were stalwarts of the lower leagues - but who have prospered as a unit. But, for both sides, such positives as there were generally came from an absence of negatives. They didn't lose, didn't concede and, in West Ham's case, didn't have any additions to a lengthy injury list.

It made the point all the more pleasing for Allardyce, the former Albion assistant manager. "We are down to the bare bones," he said, citing seven injuries and the fact he only named six substitutes, just two of them recognised first-team footballers. The absentees included most of what he termed "our flair players", a category he used for such differing talents as Andy Carroll, Mohamed Diame and Yossi Benayoun.

But a constant of any Allardyce team is a dead-ball threat. His side's menace, unsurprisingly, came from the delivery excellence of Mark Noble. Winston Reid volleyed just over after James Collins headed the midfielder's corner into his path. O'Brien came close with a volley from Noble's free kick.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Albion, too, came closest from set-pieces. Two Chris Brunt corners led to James Morrison twice hitting the bar. The first was the product of improvisation and invention, the midfielder reacting to Zoltan Gera's volley across the box with an overhead kick; the second was a header that clipped the woodwork on its way over.

Peter Odemwingie provided moments of skill in the second half, when he was relocated to the left wing after starting in attack - "maybe it was my fault because we went 4-4-2 and it didn't click," said Clarke - and Albion have now gone three games without a goal.

But it was a contest of a blunt attack against an under-strength defence. "When you have that many injuries you are worried your team is going to be able to hold out," Allardyce said. "I am really relieved we got a point." An honest Clarke added: "I thought the draw was just about the right result. We didn't quite do enough."

At least the puritans in the dugouts had their clean sheets to cherish. With little to distract them on the pitch, the paying public found other ways of occupying themselves.

MAN OF THE MATCH: James Morrison. If only because he was the one man to seriously threaten a goal. With Claudio Yacob out, the much-improved Morrison was in a deeper role alongside Youssouf Mulumbu. It is one he is capable of filling but arguably Albion missed him further forward in open play.

WEST BROM VERDICT: Perhaps Clarke could have made his changes sooner. Romelu Lukaku, often his impact substitute, was not used until the final quarter of an hour while Graham Dorrans, who has the ability to make a difference, was not required at all. But Albion's defensive record at home is excellent and a reason why they are likely to remain a top-10 side.

WEST HAM VERDICT: Given the injuries, it represented an excellent point. The two central defenders, Collins and Reid, were probably the Hammers' best players while Noble also impressed at the base of the midfield. What Allardyce wants for Christmas - or preferably December 22 - is for some of his injured players to return. Only James Tomkins and Modibo Maiga came off a bench that was otherwise populated by players from the development squad. While Benayoun and Jack Collison may be fit soon, Allardyce is eyeing reinforcements in the January transfer window.

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