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Jul 30, 2013

Baggies facing a stern test

The first four-and-a-bit months of last season reaped 33 of the 49 points West Bromwich Albion were to harvest in 2012-13.

The next four-and-a-bit weeks could determine whether the follow-up will be another success story or the start of a worrying downturn that even some treasured figures in Hawthorns folklore appear to be fearing.

Forget, for now, the programme that will unfold before our eyes up to the turn of the year. It's what the Baggies do in what is left of this transfer window that could hugely shape Steve Clarke's second season in charge.

Get it right and the Throstles will be set to fly high again. Foul up or dally unduly in the market and there may well be a crash landing for a club who are enjoying their lofty perch as what their fans endlessly refer to as 'Pride of the Midlands'.

On the face of it, all is well at The Hawthorns. And it may stay that way. Albion have finished tenth and eighth in the last two years, are now approaching a fourth successive campaign at this level (a luxury they hadn't known for nearly 30 years) and scored five against Manchester United last time out in a Premier League fixture. Their fans are even counting the days until a statue marking Ron Atkinson's much-loved 'Three Degrees' - Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson - is unveiled in West Bromwich town centre next summer. But there's something nagging away; an anxiety, a concern even that the going could be much tougher this time round.

Essentially, it's all about goals. And not just those they conceded in alarming fashion at the end of last season (three at home to Wigan and four at Norwich before the five Manchester United rattled in during that crazy farewell to Sir Alex Ferguson ten and a half weeks ago.

Hand in hand with the apprehension that Albion's central defence has a combined age of 63 (by coincidence the exact number of goals Clarke's men leaked in League and cup games in 2012-13) and the knowledge that the left-sided member of that duo, Jonas Olsson, was widely considered to be unsettled at the club last season, is the fretting about where they are going to come from at the other end.

Romelu Kulaku, whose last-afternoon hat-trick against United, as a half-time substitute no less, made it 17 goals for the club from a lad who was a mere teenager when he arrived on loan from Chelsea the previous August, has disappeared off the Hawthorns radar. Peter Odemwingie went several months ago as well, in mind if not body, and Marc Antoine Fortune has stepped down a division for the extra security of a contract offered by relegated Wigan.

Up to last January, Albion also had Chris Wood on their books - a prolific scorer prior to that with Millwall and since then with Leicester. Now, they essentially have Shane Long, Markus Rosenberg and the enigma that is Nicolas Anelka; a name to rival that of Kanu for its eye-opening impact.

Now it may just be that Le Sulk, as some know him, follows the brilliant Belgian in ripping The Hawthorns up as well, albeit in his more languid style. His CV ensures he is certainly the marquee capture the club sought to sell some season tickets. Fans wait, though, for evidence that his arrival is the catalyst for more of what one of Clarke's assistants, Kevin Keen, refers to as 'wow' signings.

Apart from Goran Popov, for whom a second loan deal has been negotiated, there have no follow-up recruits as yet. And that is the reason for a few furrowed brows around the Black Country. Are Albion anywhere near the side they were last season? And that was a season in which they produced sub-relegation form after Boxing Day by taking only 16 points from 19 League matches.

First and foremost, they somehow have to find another way to conjure up the 17 goals Lukaku delivered to them. Not easy. Shane Long also performed well in 2012-13, often in a lone striking role in the early months, but his record doesn't mark him out as a man who is going to come in with that sort of haul.

The stage is set for Rosenberg to step forward and succeed where he failed embarrassingly last term. The Swede didn't manage a single goal in 27 first-team appearances but has Ajax, Malmo and Werder Bremen on his CV, as well as 33 international caps with a decent scoring return, so some of the void might be filled there.

How Albion could do with pulling off more signings, though. Salomon Kalou, Scott Sinclair and Matej Vydra are all on their list of targets and Clarke turned up the pressure on chairman Jeremy Peace and Dan Ashworth's successor as 'star finder', Richard Garlick, by saying last week that he wanted at least four more newcomers before the window shuts on September 2.

Albion fans will wish the head coach well. Over the decade or so of his tenure, Peace has done an outstanding job and made the club unrecognisable as the one who spent more than a quarter of a century outside the top flight. He is famously frugal, though, not in any way known for his extravagance in the transfer market.

That can be as much a plus as a minus but Albion, with their good housekeeping and continued presence at the top table while even more fulsome helpings of TV cash are served up, are surely in a position to speculate wisely. They may need to in order to keep their heads above water.

They have come so far under Peace and a succession of managers, including England's Roy Hodgson, that it would be sad if they suddenly became seriously relegation-threatened again. Freedom from such strife in recent times has allowed them licence to show they are a more than capable and easy-on-the-eye side.

But the Premier League remains an unforgiving environment and Albion have work to do to prove that they have again put all the appropriate building blocks in place.

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