Michael Laudrup surprised by West Bromwich - and by Swansea City
MICHAEL Laudrup acknowledges West Bromwich Albion as the shock success story of the Premier League this season, but Swansea City have the chance to surprise him too.
If Swansea can halt Albion's charge with a home victory tonight, they will have 20 points on the board after only 14 games of the top-flight campaign.
Would that be ahead of schedule in Laudrup's plan for his maiden Premier League adventure?
"If you are talking about points, then yes," says the Swansea manager.
"It would be so important for us to reach 20 points.
"You can say that is halfway — 40 points is the magic number over here and, when you get there, you can look at how many games you have left and what you can hope for.
"So if we could reach 20 after only 14 league games, I would be very happy."
It is a big if, of course, for West Brom are one of the form sides in the division right now along with Manchester United and Manchester City.
In fact only the two Manchester giants are ahead of the Baggies in the table after last weekend's 4-2 win at Sunderland took them above Chelsea.
That was a fourth successive victory for Steve Clarke's team, who were mentioned as relegation contenders at the start of the season but are now being touted as candidates for European qualification.
"For West Brom to be third in the table after a third of the competition — it is fantastic," Laudrup adds.
"It's way above expectations.
"They have had some great wins, and they could have had even more points because they were unfortunate against Newcastle and they conceded in the last few minutes against Manchester City.
"I really don't know why they have done so well, but I know that in football, confidence is important.
"You need talent, work-rate, attitude, motivation, concentration — they are all important obviously.
"But when you are confident and you have a lot of good results, you believe you can beat anybody anywhere.
"That's how West Brom will feel at the moment. That's not because they are the best team in the world, it's because they are full of confidence."
So the Baggies will arrive in SA1 with chests puffed out, but it is not as if home shoulders will be slumped this evening.
Swansea head into another intriguing game in better shape than at any stage since their change of management in the summer.
And though West Brom's progress so far under their new boss has been rather more spectacular, getting to 20 points in November would be a remarkable achievement for Laudrup's men.
"We are in a good moment of form," he nods, "and you always want to continue when things are going well.
"You must always look to improve, to keep on putting points in your account, because suddenly you can go into a bad moment.
"We have had it already this season, where you can lose two or three games, and now there are other teams going through it.
"So right now we just want to keep getting points so that we keep getting closer to where we want to be."
Swansea beat West Brom twice last season, and only goal difference separated the two clubs in the middle of the final Premier League table of 2011-12.
Right now it looks as though Albion can hope for better this term — even if there is still a long way to go — and Laudrup reckons their success provides hope for all those top-tier clubs who do not normally feature in the Champions League places.
If Albion can suddenly trouble the top four without the use of fat cheques, then other less fashionable, less wealthy sides can aim to do something similar.
"Nearly every year there is a surprise team — last year it was Newcastle and this year it is West Brom," he says.
"Every club can be a surprise — otherwise it would not be a surprise.
"Before the league season starts, everyone asks and talks about who will win, who will be runners-up, who will reach Europe and who will be relegated.
"But at that point, nobody knows who the surprise of the year will be.
"It can be one team one year, then another, then another.
"It's great to have that surprise in football because it shows it is possible for all of us.
"You need a lot of things for it to be you — a good squad, few injuries and a bit of luck in some games.
"With all those things together, you can be the surprise."
Laudrup adds, with a note of caution, that it is still early in the season. West Brom's form cannot be viewed as a flash in the pan — not with 13 games played in a 38-game competition — but having said that, there is a long way to go before the Premier League's prizes are dished out next spring.
"It's only the end of November," Laudrup points out.
"You have to go on until May, and a lot of things can change.
"I am not saying it will change for West Brom, I am just saying the season is very long."
Laudrup hopes things will alter for Clarke's in-form team this evening, otherwise Swansea will be left licking wounds after a second home reverse of the campaign.
West Brom's fans are calling themselves the pride of the Midlands right now.
It is up to Swansea to serve a reminder of why they are the pride of Wales.