Baggies finish on top in pre-season derby
CRAIG Dawson put his Team GB Olympics disappointment behind him by setting Albion on course to a pre-season derby victory at Walsall.
The defender gave the Baggies an early advantage when he headed home Yassine El Ghanassy’s 16th-minute corner.
Super-sub Saido Berahino’s 62nd-minute strike and El Ghanassy’s first Albion goal in the 87th minute ensured the visitors extended their unbeaten run to four games in their penultimate friendly before the big kick-off against Liverpool on Saturday week (ko 3pm).
But they had to rely on Boaz Myhill to make some important saves in the Baggies goal – including a 72nd-minute penalty stop from Febien Brandy.
Saddlers sub George Bowerman scrambled home a corner two minutes from time to grab a consolation for the hosts.
Baggies fans made up more than half of the 4,738 gate at the Banks’s Stadium and they were treated to a lively encounter, with both sides creating chances.
Billy Jones captained Albion as Steve Clarke handed a first Baggies start to Claudio Yacob.
And Olympians Dawson and Chris Wood were named in the starting line-up for their first Baggies action of pre-season.
The Saddlers team included some familiar faces, with 2001/02 promotion hero Adam Chambers in central midfield and youngster Paul Downing at centre-half.
The first threat from either side came in the ninth minute when Simon Cox was brought down just outside the area and El Ghanassy stepped up to curl the free-kick inches wide of the near post and into the side-netting.
Moments later the hosts attacked through Florent Cuvelier down the right and he delivered a dangerous low ball across the six-yard box, which Ashley Hemmings could not get on the end of.
Some excellent passing by the Baggies in the 16th minute unlocked the Walsall defence, as Cox found El Ghanassy and he in turn threaded Marc-Antoine Fortune in on goal.
The former Celtic hitman wasted little time in letting fly with a shot that David Grof could only parry - and Ben Purkiss headed out.
From the resultant El Ghanassy corner Dawson stole in to power home a header from six yards and open the scoring.
Dean Smith’s League One outfit were almost level in the 25th minute when Chambers flicked on Will Grigg’s left-wing cross under pressure from Gabriel Tamas and Cuvelier – at full stretch - directed the ball goalwards with his toe, only to see Myhill keep it out with his feet.
Fortune pounced on a loose ball three minutes later and it needed a good block by Andy Butler to stop his goalbound 18-yard strike.
In the final 15 minutes of the first-half Cox and El Ghanassy switched wings – but a second Baggies goal was proving elusive.
James Hurst was breathing a sigh of relief four minutes before the break as he mishit his attempted clearance from Hemmings’ left-wing cross back towards his own goal – and he was grateful to see Myhill first to the loose ball.
Grigg was put clean through seconds before half-time – but Myhill was again on his toes and produced a fine one-on-one block to keep the visitors ahead.
The Baggies made a change at the interval with Berahino coming on for Wood to spearhead a three-man attack, as Fortune moved out to the right and Cox to the left.
And the England Under-20 international made an immediate impact with two shots from distance that failed to trouble Grof in the opening five minutes of the second half.
The hosts made three changes at the break and two were involved in a Walsall attack when Brandy was unfortunate to see his near-post header from Richard Taundry’s cross blocked by Hurst in the 58th minute.
El Ghanassy tried his luck from 30 yards on the hour mark – but his effort dipped just over.
But on 62 the summer signing threaded a perfect ball through for Berahino and he kept his cool to slot home past Grof and double Albion’s lead.
Dawson had to be at his bravest on 70 as he flung himself to block Kieron Morris’ fierce 20-yard drive.
The Saddlers were handed a lifeline two minutes later when Cameron Gayle was adjudged to have brought down Brandy in the box.
The striker picked himself up to take the penalty, only to see Myhill fling himself to his left and pull off a fabulous one-handed save.
At the other end Grof produced some heroics of his own as he just managed to keep out Berahino’s well-executed left-foot strike from the edge of the area.
Fortune produced some powerful play down the right in the 87th minute as he pounced on Grof's weak clearance and centred to present man-of-the-match El Ghanassy with the simplest of tap-ins to open his Baggies account.
A minute later the Saddlers grabbed a consolation goal through substitute George Bowerman as he bundled home a corner at the near post.
WALSALL (4-4-1-1): Grof; Purkiss, Downing, Butler (Taundry HT), Stewart (George 82); Baxendale (Williams 86), Chambers (Brandy HT), Featherstone (Benning 82), Hemmings (J Jones 64); Cuvelier (Morris 64); Grigg (Bowerman HT). Subs not used: Walker (gk).
ALBION (4-4-2): Myhill; B Jones (Gayle 68), Dawson, Tamas, Hurst; Cox (Allan 76), Thorne (O’Neil 76), Yacob (Sawyers 76), El Ghanassy; Wood (Berahino HT), Fortune. Subs not used: L Daniels (gk), Roofe, D Daniels.
GOALS: WALSALL – Bowerman (88). ALBION – Dawson (16), Berahino (62), El Ghanassy (87).
REFEREE: S Martin.
ATTENDANCE: 4,736 (2,759 Albion fans).
ALBION STARMAN: Yassine El Ghanassy.