He has been the highly rated assistant who has been an integral part of backroom teams that have delivered trophies at the highest level, but can Steve Clarke make the grade as a Premier League manager with West Bromwich Albion?
Stints as assistant to Gianfranco Zola at West Ham United, Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool and, most notably, Jose Mourinho at Chelsea have earned Clarke a fine reputation among players and peers, and it seems that now his apprenticeship has been served we will finally get to see if the praise is justified.
The transition from successful number two to the top job has often been fraught with difficulty (Brian Kidd, anyone?) but nevertheless, West Brom chairman Jeremy Peace has seen enough in Clarke’s CV to give him the chance he has always craved. The business of proving he has what it takes to be the main man starts tonight, as West Brom begin a tour of Scandinavia with a fixture against Malmo in Sweden.
Malmo are right in the title hunt in the Swedish Allsvenskan, lying second, just three points behind Elfsborg after 15 games. That is largely down to their home form, which is formidable: Norling’s men boast a 7-1-0-16-1 record at Swedbank Stadion.
Notoriously, Peace is not a man to take decisions lightly, which is perhaps why Clarke’s appointment is something of a surprise. After sacking Roberto di Matteo in February 2011, harshly in the eyes of some, he went with a safe but ultimately inspired choice in Roy Hodgson, who staved off the threat of relegation and established the Baggies as a mid-table side before leaving to take the England job in May.
But replacing the popular Hodgson and his 35 years of managerial experience with the untried Clarke is a gamble, and one that will provide an extra intrigue as the Premier League kicks off next month.
Clarke’s first assignment as manager is a tough one. His West Brom side play their first pre-season match against a Malmo side whose season is in full swing and there are more reasons than not to get stuck into the 7/5 on offer with bwin that the Swedes inflict an opening-game defeat on West Brom’s new boss.
The Baggies are 33/20 to get Clarke off to a winning start, with the draw at 11/5.
Slight questions over Malmo’s motivation are the only thing stopping me from steaming in to that 7/5. Rikard Norling’s side are smack bang in the middle of their domestic season, having taken a break for Euro 2012, and will have a fitness advantage over West Brom that the Baggies will not be able to bridge given the stage of their preparations.
What’s more, Malmo are right in the title hunt in the Swedish Allsvenskan, lying second, just three points behind Elfsborg after 15 games. That is largely down to their home form, which is formidable: Norling’s men boast a 7-1-0-16-1 record at Swedbank Stadion, including four wins from four against teams in the top half.
So this would be a difficult enough trip for West Brom even if at full speed, but in their first pre-season match I can’t see them having the fitness or the technical prowess to give Malmo a match.
A free £20 bet is on offer for punters joining bwin.com and placing this on Malmo to beat West Brom would return a cool £48 if the Swedes do indeed chalk up the victory.
The only concern is the timing of the game – Malmo play their next league match on Monday so it is possible they will rest players for a fixture that was no doubt arranged by Hodgson, who also managed Malmo with great distinction.
So team news is paramount, but even if a few star names are rested, merely lower the stake because West Brom, themselves without their Euro 2012 contingent, will use this as an opportunity to give the whole squad a much-needed run out.
It makes the 7/5 on Malmo that rare thing – a strongly fancied bet on a friendly match.
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