The Premier League may be wrapped up but the tussle at the top of the Championship is only just getting started. Ollie Watkins scored the only goal of the game as Brentford edged out West Brom, making the league leaders look ordinary for long periods and cutting the gap to the division’s top two to five points.
Brentford were brimming with confidence after taking a first-half lead on a balmy evening but Albion were laboured for long periods and so, as it happens, it is not only Leeds who are determined to make life as painstaking as possible in the final throes of a marathon season.
“We knew that we needed to win to fight the top two,” said Thomas Frank, Brentford’s head coach. “We have big dreams but the biggest thing for us is to focus on the next training, the next game. I think the back four in general did a top job. It was a brilliant performance defensively.”
Substitutes were sprawled across the stand behind the dugouts as if bedraggled students at a morning lecture and, such are these strange times, West Brom’s preparations comprised Romaine Sawyers, who spent three years at Griffin Park, including a season as captain, having a pre-match massage in the modest surround of the stadium concourse. But Albion appeared uncomfortable and struggled to contain Brentford’s electric three-pronged attack of Watkins, Saïd Benrahma and Tariqe Fosu.
There was juxtaposition in the technical areas, too. Slaven Bilic was hunched over, hands on his knees attempting to rouse his side, while Frank, wearing a khaki T-shirt and jeans, cut a relaxed figure, his demeanour understandable given the way his team dominated the first half.
Emiliano Marcondes, who enjoyed a star turn off the bench in victory against Fulham last weekend, was promoted to the starting lineup minutes before kick-off here after Mathias Jensen sustained an injury in the warm-up and was again influential alongside Josh Dasilva, the former Arsenal midfielder. But when Brentford struck, it was inevitable that Benrahma would be involved, cleverly slipping in Dasilva whose cross-cum-shot was converted by the lurking Watkins, who slotted in to score his 23rd goal of the season.
Brentford played with the kind of freedom Frank had encouraged, neatly dovetailing with Watkins in search of a second. Dasilva, too, was the beneficiary of a wonderful pass by Benrahma, who effortlessly controlled a monstrous kick downfield by David Raya, the Brentford goalkeeper, before slipping in the former Arsenal midfielder. But Dasilva halted his run, presumably for fear of being flagged offside.
The pace and athleticism of Watkins, who has relished the responsibility of leading the line as a No 9 since shifting in from a wide role, was a nuisance throughout and Brentford’s tempo caused problems for a pedestrian West Brom, who introduced Kenneth Zohore and Filip Krovinovic at half-time.
Whatever Bilic said at the interval had an effect, with Albion supercharged. Matheus Pereira, whose £9m move from Sporting Lisbon was triggered last week, sent a powerful shot over the bar before later stinging the palms of Raya from distance.
Zohore went even closer, smacking the crossbar after swivelling on the edge of the D. The striker collected possession outside the box and Pontus Jansson’s unfortunate slip allowed Zohore to zoom into a yard of space before taking aim.
Brentford, for so long unflustered, were ruffled but Benrahma was still toying with the opposition, nudging the ball over the shoulder of Sawyers with a sumptuous flick.
Despite spending much of the second half on the back foot, Brentford’s energy levels never wavered and Dasilva collapsed to the floor in fury after dragging wide a dangerous low cross by the bundling Brentford left-back, Rico Henry.
The returning Bryan Mbeumo, who was absent last week after testing positive for coronavirus, forced Johnstone into a save, while Ethan Pinnock had to be alert down the other end to brilliantly deny Grady Diangana.