Albion will definitely be playing Europa League football next season after holding champions Manchester City to a draw in a thriller at the Amex.
With the pressure off, both teams contributed to a highly entertaining game and the goal which drew Albion level was a sensational effort from Julio Enciso.
The Paraguayan’s thunderbolt against Chelsea was probably going to win goal of the season but he bettered it here, with a right-foot cracker from 30 yards into the top corner after Phil Foden put City ahead for his fourth of the season.
Danny Welbeck, Kaoru Mitoma and Erling Haaland all had goals disallowed, Welbeck hit the bar and there were a glut of chances, particularly in the first half, but a draw was a fair result. Albion head to Villa Park with sixth placed secured and a European tour to look forward to in the autumn.
Roberto De Zerbi had made four changes to the side which beat Southampton on Sunday. Lewis Dunk, Alexis Mac Allister, Evan Ferguson and Joel Veltman dropped to the bench and there were starts for Jan Paul van Hecke, Danny Welbeck, Billy Gilmour and Facundo Buonanotte.
In Dunk’s absence Pascal Gross captained the team from right-back and Albion started well before City should have scored from their first decent chance. Foden surged into the box and found Haaland lurking at the far post, but the Norwegian headed over from close range.
Both sides played with the handbrake off from the start. Buonanotte did really well to pick out Welbeck’s run but Foden got back to block his shot. Stefan Ortega then saved Gilmour’s strike from just inside the box after the Scot had won the ball back and exchanged passes with Welbeck. A free kick for a foul on the lively Gilmour allowed Gross to test Ortega from 25 yards but the keeper saved comfortably.
Ortega was beaten on 19 minutes though when Welbeck struck another free kick from 25 yards, after Gilmour was fouled by Ilkay Gundogan, which came back off the bar. Back came City and Foden played Haaland in on goal but Jason Steele came out to save at his feet.
City broke the deadlock om 25 minutes with a goal of ruthless efficiency. Gross played Haaland onside when Bernardo Silva played the ball through. Haaland could have shot himself with only Steele to beat but squared to the unmarked Foden, whose shot went in off the unfortunate van Hecke as he tried to clear off the line.
It was harsh on Albion who thought they had equalised on the half-hour when Gross’s corner from the right was flicked on and Mitoma fell as he tried to bundle the ball over the line and it was rightly disallowed for handball.
Ortega kept out a well-struck effort from Buonanotte before Albion drew level with another stunning goal from Enciso. Collecting possession from Levi Colwill 30 yards out he took a couple of paces before hitting the sweetest of strikes with his right foot which curled from a yard outside the line of the right-hand post and back into the top corner. Half a dozen Ortergas wouldn’t have saved it.
Welbeck was narrowly offside when he thrashed a pass from Mitoma into the bottom corner and in stoppage time the striker had time to take Enciso’s chipped cross into the six-yard box under control but elected to head first time and Ortega saved comfortably.
It had been a brilliant first 45 – could we enjoy more of the same in the second half? We soon had the answer.
After Haaland had skied a scissors kick into the City fans behind the goal he teed up Gudogan for a shot which deflected off Colwill and wide of the far post.
Enciso and Gilmour were replaced by Ferguson and Mac Allister before City sub Cole Porter hammered a right-foot shot which Steele did well to parry. Ferguson’s first touch was a powerful effort which was heading inside the near post only for Ortega to brilliantly divert it wide.
Ortega remained the busier keeper, blocking Mitoma’s effort after he’d done well to control Pervis Estupinan’s fizzed cross from the left. At the other end Haaland controlled Riyad Mahrez’s cross but volleyed wide.
There was a light-hearted moment midway through the second half when Guardiola jogged onto the pitch to retrieve the ball so his side could take a free-kick, shaking hands with De Zerbi as he returned to the bench.
By then, and for the first time in the match, the intensity levels had dropped a little although there was no lack of power from Estupinan when he met a loose ball 20 yards out and struck a left-foot volley that shaved the outside of the post.
Haaland thought he’d put City in front when he headed Cole Palmer’s cross into the net but after being alerted by the VAR, referee Simon Hooper disallowed the goal for pulling Colwill’s shirt. Mitoma headed Gross’s teasing cross over from a great position moments later and in the closing stages both sides settled for what they had.
Albion’s players enjoyed another memorable lap of honour at full-time after the two coaches had warmly embraced on the touchline – truly a season to remember for both clubs.
Albion: Steele, Gross, van Hecke, Colwill, Estupinan, Gilmour (Mac Allister 51), Caicedo, Buonanotte (Veltman 75), Welbeck (Undav 75), Enciso (Ferguson 51), Mitoma.
Subs not used: McGill, Webster, Dunk, Ayari, Peupion.
Referee: Simon Hooper