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Dec 29, 2012

West Brom not surprised by strong start

West Bromwich Albion assistant coach Keith Downing has denied that the Baggies are shocked by their outstanding first half to the season and believes they must aim for a Europa League place.

• Blog: All I want for Christmas

Albion embark on the second half of their campaign by visiting Manchester United on Saturday, with 33 points from the first 19 matches.

They are comfortably the Midlands' top team and are in line for their highest top-flight finish for more than 30 years.

But Downing, preparing the side with Kevin Keen in the absence of the virus-hit Steve Clarke, said: "We felt quietly confident we would have a reasonable season.

"The biggest worry was that we had a change of manager because he (Steve) had big shoes to fill after Roy (Hodgson). But he has done exceptionally well.

"I think he realises what the strengths of the club are and he has put his own slant on it without revolutionising it. We don't set too many targets, let's get to 40 points and then move on from there. We don't fear anyone. The top five or six is a tall order but we have put ourselves in with a chance and it's something to aim for."

Albion have major injury doubts about Youssouf Mulumbu, Jonas Olsson and Goran Popov while Steven Reid and Claudio Yacob have already been ruled out for the United clash

With a home game to come against Fulham on Tuesday, there is a temptation for Clarke to recall Shane Long after Romelu Lukaku started in the 2-1 victories over Norwich and QPR.

Downing believes that Albion's strength in depth, especially in attack, will serve them well at Old Trafford.

"The beauty of it is that they are two good quality players," he added. "Romelu has given us an extra dimension. Both are very good number nines in their own right.

"Sometimes we play with one of them up front, sometimes with both of them, but in every position there's some competition."

Gabriel Tamas is likely to deputise for Olsson and the club have already recalled George Thorne from his loan spell with Peterborough and put him in the squad.

The midfielder, who turns 20 next week, has started only ten games for his parent club - four of those as a substitute - but returns to first-team contention with an encouraging character reference.

"George has done exceptionally well and helped in Peterborough's resurgence," Downing said. "It has been an important part of his education to go away and play Championship football.

"He played particularly well in the game against Wolves. We have always felt he had potential but his chances have been limited at this club.

"He has good awareness and technical ability and is a good passer. He has an ability to be a good screen and is often a step ahead. He knows the next pass."

Albion face arguably their toughest test this season and while Downing is confident his side can challenge the league leaders, he is aware of their attacking threats.

"They are the front runners and have that ability to grind out results and an ability to turn anything on its head," he said. "We know it's going to be a very difficult game. They have the ability to throw players on with different strengths and have an ability to score a goal late on."

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