Here was a contest that would have seemed of huge significance in the Premier League – how Crystal Palace must have wished it was – but failed to sprinkle any of that old Cup magic over a quiet and dispirited Hawthorns. Not that the 2,000 visiting supporters in a crowd of only 12,700 minded, as they brushed off a “Wem-ber-lee” chant rarely heard from followers of a club beaten in the third round for the previous three seasons.
Furthermore, Palace will use this as a springboard to push them further away from the bottom three of the League, from which they recently escaped for the first time this season.
In contrast, Albion, only four points above them, must be aware of the need to fill their managerial vacancy quickly; not because Keith Downing is doing a bad job – this was his first defeat in five matches as caretaker – but because a new man would have his own idea of transfer business to be done over the next three weeks.
Downing has proved astute at rotating the squad but he may have overdone it here in making as many as eight changes. The controversial figure of Nicolas Anelka, who had made all the headlines last weekend, was given a day off, with Shane Long recalled in his place alongside Matej Vydra in a partnership that did not quite gel.
Not until the second half did Albion present a serious threat, still finding the twin towers Damien Delaney and Danny Gabbidon, with goalkeeper Julian Speroni behind them, difficult to bypass.
Dwight Gayle, brought into Palace’s attack as one of five changes, scored a well taken goal midway through the first half and after that Tony Pulis’s side were able to pull men behind the ball, which was hoofed away without ceremony in between the sort of occasional counter-attack that brought a goal for substitute Marouane Chamakh with the last kick of the game. They also have a midfielder of high promise in Hiram Boateng, a young Londoner not 18 until later this week.
If this was to be Downing’s last game, he will leave with a sense of frustration. “We gave them a goal, which made it doubly difficult, but in the first half we lacked intensity to our game and had too much caution,” he said.
Pulis, a traditionalist who led Stoke City to the final three years ago, regretted the attendance was less than half of that which witnessed the corresponding League game in November (won 2-0 by Albion). “There’s got to be a way of filling the stadiums up,” he said. “That has to be looked at.” It was symptomatic that the opening goal should stem from an error. Goran Popov played a casual pass infield from his left-back position that Boateng latched on to, sending it forward first time for Gayle, who swivelled and cleverly directed his shot out of reach of a flat-footed Ben Foster.
Although each side clipped what used to be called the woodwork, the first half was poor. Early on, Barry Bannan, a former Villa man, hit the outside of a post with a cross-shot from the byline. Soon after the goal, Zoltan Gera’s cross from the left was headed onto the top of bar by Craig Dawson.
In the second half, Albion livened up and Speroni made his best saves from Vydra, low down with one hand, and from Saido Berahino, turned over with some difficulty. Gera pulled his team’s last opportunity wide and on a break in added time, Yannick Bolasie did well down the left and set up Chamakh for an open goal
West Bromwich (4-4-2): Foster; Dawson (Amalfitano, 60), McAuley, Lugano, Popov; Gera, Morrison, Yacob (Sessègnon, 80), Berahino; Long, Vydra (Sinclair, 68).
Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Speroni; Mariappa, Gabbidon, Delaney, Parr; Bolassie, Dikgacoi, Bannan (Puncheon, 78), Boateng (O’Keefe, 67), Williams (Chamakh, 78); Gayle.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Man of the match: Delaney (Crystal Palace)
Match rating: 6/10.