Albion suffered a setback in their push for European football against struggling Everton.
A disbelieving home crowd watched as Abdoulaye Doucoure gave relegation-threatened Everton a dream start when he scored inside the first minute.
By half-time Doucoure and Dwight McNeil had given the visitors a 3-0 lead and Roberto De Zerbi reacted by making four changes at the break. Albion were much better in the second half and with a bit of luck might even have staged a miraculous fightback. Jordan Pickford twice turned efforts from Evan Ferguson onto the woodwork and Alexis Mac Allister also hit the post.
Mac Allister scored his tenth goal of the season to give his side a goal their second-half efforts deserved but it was the 3000 Everton fans who were singing in the rain at full-time. McNeil had made it 4-0 after another counter-attack and he then raced clear to complete his hat-trick with virtually the last kick of the contest.
De Zerbi had made two changes to the side which had beaten Manchester United. Fit-again Pascal Gross and Deniz Undav came in while Ferguson returned on the bench after missing four games with an ankle injury.
Perhaps Albion should have known it might not be their day when Everton took the lead after just 34 seconds. Alex Iwobi won the ball back down the right from Kaoru Mitoma and fed Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Lewis Dunk failed to intercept and when the Everton striker played the ball across goal Doucoure steered it past Jason Steele from close range.
Danny Welbeck nearly responded immediately when he met Mitoma’s left-wing cross and would have been disappointed to direct a free header from six yards wide of the target.
Mitoma twice got past Nathan Patterson with ease but couldn't find a teammate and although Albion had recovered well from the shock of that early goal, Everton counter-attacked menacingly too and Calvert-Lewin dragged a shot that took a deflection wide of the right-hand post. Calvert-Lewin then turned Dunk cleverly on the halfway line and the Albion captain was booked.
Having not played for a week it was little surprise that Everton looked the fresher team. A combination of Adam Webster and Undav combined to block McNeil’s shot then Webster again denied McNeil inside the box.
Idrissa Gueye joined Yerry Mina in the book for a crude challenge on Mitoma before Everton doubled their lead on 29 minutes. Once again Albion were punished for giving the ball away when Gross was dispossessed 25 yards from Everton’s goal. McNeil surged down the left, looked up and spotted Doucoure unmarked on the far side. He still had a lot to do but did it with aplomb, volleying right-footed inside the post and giving Steele no chance.
Five minutes later it was 3-0. Another swift counter-attack involving Iwobi and Doucoure ended with McNeil driving a low cross which deflected off the unfortunate Steele’s leg and into the net. It nearly got worse in stoppage time when James Garner looked certain to score, but Steele spread himself to make a superb block.
De Zerbi rang the changes for the second half, bringing on Levi Colwill, Julio Enciso, Solly March and Ferguson in a quadruple change and it had the desired effect. The Amex crowd, who had given new signing Joao Pedro a warm welcome during half-time, found their voice and Jordan Pickford was forced into the first of several saves in the 47th minute when March tried to find the far corner, but the England keeper got his angles right.
Pickford made an outstanding stop in the 59th minute when to push Ferguson’s powerful header onto the post after Gross teased a cross to the far post. Albion had found some fluency and were creating chances. March cut onto his left foot and his blast at goal was blocked by Mina before Albion were denied by the woodwork twice inside a minute.
Pickford again excelled when he brilliantly touched Ferguson’s powerful left-foot drive onto the bar. Mac Allister met the resultant corner with a clever flicked header which beat Pickford but also came back off the goal frame.
At that point we probably knew it wasn’t going to be our night. Pickford stretched to his left to push away a goalbound header from the luckless Ferguson and to make matters worse Everton broke upfield in the 76th minute to score a fourth. Iwobi had acres of space down the left when March appeared to pull his hamstring and Iwobi fed McNeil who left Dunk and Steele on the deck before walking the ball into an empty net.
Albion did get a goal their second-half efforts deserved a couple of minutes later. Mac Allister fell as he stretched to reach Gross’s cross and when Mitoma stabbed the ball off the post it rebounded off the Argentinian’s head and into the net. Finally, a bit of good fortune.
When Mitoma’s goalbound volley hit Colwill on the line it summed up Albion’s luck in the second half. There was still time for Pickford to push away Ferguson’s close-range volley before McNeil raced away in the last minute of stoppage time and completed his hat-trick with a great strike into the roof of the net. Everton deserved to win on the basis of their first-half show but a four-goal losing margin was perhaps harsh on Albion.
Albion: Steele, Gross, Webster (Colwill 45), Dunk, Estupinan, Caicedo, Mac Allister, Buonanotte (March 45 (Gilmour 77)), Mitoma, Undav (Enciso 45), Welbeck (Ferguson 45).
Subs not used: Sanchez, Ayari, van Hecke, Moran.
Referee: Simon Hooper