Bournemouth-West Brom Preview
AFC Bournemouth's rise from the brink of extinction all the way to the Premier League has become one of the most endearing stories in the English top flight, and the Cherries are currently in one of their best runs of form in club history.
Eddie Howe's men attempt to extend their league unbeaten streak to five matches Saturday against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns.
Many pundits simply assumed that newly promoted Bournemouth, who had never reached the top flight in club history, would struggle through the season and ultimately be relegated back to the Championship.
But Howe's team has surprised many and are coming off consecutive wins over Chelsea and Manchester United, making them the first newly promoted team to beat both opponents in their inaugural season. Last week's 2-1 shock win over a tepid United side was arguably Bournemouth's best result of the season. Junior Stanislas' second-minute Olimpico goal from a corner kick signaled the Cherries meant business on home soil, and while Marouane Fellaini pulled the Red Devils level, Josh King's 54th-minute winner gave the Cherries an impressive three points.
They key for Bournemouth (4-4-8), not only against the big boys like United and Chelsea, but throughout the season, has been their ability to start quickly and pin their opponents deep early and often. The south coast club has netted a league-best five goals in the first 10 minutes of matches this season.
The club has also scored just two goals between the 28th and 76th minutes of matches, making those opening 10 minutes of offensive efficiency more critical heading into the busy festive period of the fixture list.
The character of the small south coast club is certainly unquestionable, especially for midfielder Harry Arter, who put in a heroic shift against Manchester United just days after losing his daughter at birth earlier in the week.
"It's been a hugely emotional week for him," said Howe. "I think he's handled himself with real dignity throughout the process, and to play the way he did today, with the emotions running through his body, I can't credit him enough for that."
West Bromwich (5-5-6) comes into the fixture also looking to extend their unbeaten streak in league play to five games following a heartbreaking 2-2 draw with Liverpool at Anfield which saw Divock Origi fire home the equaliser in the 96th minute.
Despite the draw, the Baggies are in fine form and have adapted well to manager Tony Pulis' defence-first, counterattack style of play. The club aren't exactly an offensive juggernaut, having attempted a league-low 139 shots, but they sit deep and present a significant challenge by daring the opposition to break them down.
While Bournemouth has made the most of the opening 10 minutes of matches, West Brom has largely failed to make an impact in the second half, and their seven goals after the restart are better than only Stoke City.
West Brom has also failed to score a goal inside the opening half-hour of any match this season, a trend Pulis will have to reverse if the Baggies are to get a result against the determined Cherries.
Young striker Saido Berahino, who once looked primed to become a permanent fixture with the senior English national team, has played a full 90 minutes just once this season, and has not seen the pitch at all in the last three matches.
Speculation continues to swirl over a possible move to Tottenham in January, and at least one West Brom club legend - all-time leading scorer Tony Brown - believes Berahino is wasting his career at the Hawthorns.
"It's been a waste all season, for the lad himself and for the club," Brown told BBC WM. "Does the lad realise that he is wasting his career?"
"He's got a great gift of scoring goals. There's not a lot of players who have got that ability. While he is sitting on the bench, he is not able to fulfill his potential. "
These sides last met in last season's League Cup when Bournemouth upset the Baggies 2-1 at Dean Court. West Brom also won a 2011-12 League Cup match there by a 4-1 scoreline.