Pitiful Performance against Palace

On Tuesday, I was lucky enough to spend a cracking evening listening to Luther Blissett, Tony Coton, Sean Dyche and Paul Wilkinson reminiscing with Adam Leventhal in Tales from the Vicarage.  As well as the anecdotes, there were some interesting musings on modern football, especially the penchant for diving.  Coton said that, in his day, cheats would be called out by their team mates as well as the opposition.  An interesting thought going into an afternoon with Wilfried Zaha.

As if to punish me for having such a great time, I woke up the next morning with a nasty case of vertigo, which has plagued me for the rest of the week.  As I left home to walk to the station for the journey to Selhurst Park, I was a little unsteady and wondered whether I should stay at home but, since this was our only game in three weeks, I certainly wasn’t going to miss it.

As it was a London game, the City ‘Orns were allowed a block booking of tickets, so we duly met in Croydon for our pre-match drinks.  Whenever two or three (or twelve) football fans are gathered together, the conversation often turns to superstitions and we soon discovered that a number of our group were wearing their “lucky socks”, although the evidence that these articles of clothing were actually lucky was almost as scanty as the shorts that Paul Wilkinson brought along on Tuesday.

Britos takes a throw

Team news was that Mazzarri had made two changes with Cathcart and Janmaat coming in for Holebas and Okaka.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Behrami; Janmaat, Cleverley, Capoue, Niang; and Deeney.

The first incident of the game involved Cathcart stopping a run by Zaha on the edge of the Watford box, allowing the Palace man to take a tumble in the area.  Needless to say, the home fans were yelling for a penalty, while the away fans were berating him for diving.  The first action resembling a goal attempt came from the home side as Sakho headed a Cabaye corner over the bar.  The Hornets fashioned a much better chance as Niang advanced before taking a shot, but it was straight at Hennessey in the Palace goal.  That was it for the first half hour of the game.  The next thing that I deemed worthy of noting down was a chant of “You wrecked your own bus” from the Watford crowd following the report that the Middlesbrough team bus that was covered in Palace graffiti on their visit to Selhurst Park had been loaned from their hosts.  Palace’s best chance of the game so far came on 36 minutes as Zaha advanced down the left, his cross was headed clear by Kaboul, but only as far as Cabaye whose shot was deflected for a corner.

Niang and Deeney looking for the ball

The first caution of the game went to Cleverley for a late foul on Zaha.  A nice passing move between Zaha and Townsend led to a cross that was headed clear by Britos under challenge by Sakho.  Soon after, the ball fell to Zaha on the edge of the box, but his shot was well over the target.  The visitors had the last chance of the half as a header from Janmaat dropped to Behrami whose volley was high and wide.

The whistle went to end a dreadful half of football.  Watford had dominated the early part of the game, with the hosts coming into it towards half time, but the only shot on target had been the tame effort from Niang and most of the entertainment was coming from the stands.  During the half time entertainment, t-shirts were thrown into the crowd.  A number in the away end chose to throw them back.  A poor move as one young lad who opened his was soon sporting a “Cult Heroes” shirt with Luther’s face on it.  Although, after that first half, to remind us of the team of the early 80s was rubbing salt in the wound.

Capoue, Doucoure and Amrabat waiting for a Britos throw

Mazzarri was forced into a substitution at the start of the second half bringing Doucouré on to replace Behrami, who had been struggling with an injury.  The first chance of the second half fell to the visitors as Capoue launched a shot from distance over the bar.  Just before the hour mark, there was a frission of excitement in the away end as Amrabat appeared to be getting ready to come on.  The tension mounted and dissenting voices were heard as he was sent on a warm up run down the touchline.  But, finally, he donned a white shirt and entered the field of play in place of Janmaat who had had an absolute mare.  Zaha was lucky to escape a caution as his reaction to being dispossessed by Prödl was to knock the Austrian to the ground.  There was a scare for the Hornets as Britos gave the ball away, not for the first time, Townsend crossed for Zaha but, yet again, the shot was over the bar.  Palace took the lead on 68 minutes.  Due to the sightlines at Selhurst Park when the crowd are standing, I didn’t see either the incident that led to the goal or the strike that beat Gomes, but I am reliably informed that Prödl fouled Zaha (a tactical move that earned him a yellow card), Cabaye took the free kick and, as Deeney attempted to head clear, the ball went in off the post.  So Palace had managed to take the lead in a game in which they hadn’t had a shot on target.

Kaboul

Watford had a great chance to equalize as Doucouré hit a shot from distance that Hennessey just managed to tip around the post for a corner.  At this point Jacque leaned over and suggested a ritual burning of our lucky socks, which had let us down very badly on this occasion.  Mazzarri made another popular substitution bringing on Success, although many around me were questioning why Cleverley had been the man to make way.  My feeling was that Tom had been becoming increasingly frustrated and was a foul away from a second yellow.  Others saw it as a tactical move as he changed the formation.  Anyhow, the next attack came from the home team as Benteke ran half the length of the pitch before sending a dreadful shot well wide of the target.  Palace had a much better chance as Britos lost the ball, again, Cathcart came to the rescue blocking a shot from Zaha, but the rebound reached Cabaye who shot wide.  Another decent chance to equalize came to nothing as Niang did really well to get into the box but, instead of playing a square ball to one of his teammates, opted to cut the ball back to an area populated with Palace defenders.  As the clock reached 90 minutes Doucouré fed Success inside the area, I just wanted one of them to try a shot, but it wasn’t to be as they were smothered by the Palace defence and the ball rolled out for a goal kick.  There was one final chance to grab a point in the last minute of time added on as Hennessey came out to deal with a high cross towards Deeney in the box, he collided with the Watford man, the ball fell to Niang, but his shot just cleared the bar and the points stayed in South London.

Doucoure and Britos

The away crowd had been getting increasingly irate throughout the game and a number of fans gathered at the front of the stand to make their feelings known to the players.  Unfortunately the two who were applauding the crowd when the volley of abuse was aimed their way were Cathcart, who had done pretty well against Zaha, and Prödl, who was also pretty blameless and looked far from impressed at the reception.

It had been an appalling game.  Palace were dreadful and were there for the taking, but we didn’t test them at all.  I had high hopes when both Amrabat and Success came on, but each time I was disappointed.  I was just thankful that, even with a diverted train, it was a fairly easy journey home.  This season is becoming increasingly frustrating.  We have a very talented group of players at our disposal who have no excuses for putting in a lacklustre performance against such a poor side.  We can only be grateful that there are some truly awful teams in this division.  One of those is up next at Vicarage Road.  We have to be expect much better from that game or the post-match threats from some in our party only to turn up for the pre-match pints and forego the actual game may well come to pass.

Seven Goals, but Not a Thriller

Celebrating Deeney's 105th Goal

Celebrating Deeney’s 105th Goal

After the frustrating draw against West Ham last Saturday evening, we were back to Vicarage Road for a three o’clock kick-off.  The pre-match gathering of City Orns and Norfolk Horns was as convivial and entertaining as would be expected.

As we walked down Vicarage Road, a group of Southampton fans behind us started chanting.  With some visiting teams, this would have felt quite aggressive and intimidating, but from Southampton it was quite endearing.

Team news was that Mazzarri had made two changes from the West Ham game replacing the injured Janmaat and Zárate with Prödl and Okaka.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Cleverley, Behrami, Capoue; Niang; Deeney and Okaka.

For the second week running Watford took the lead within the first five minutes, this time through open play as, from a Kaboul throw-in, Deeney headed the ball down to Okaka who returned it for the Watford captain to volley home.  This was Troy’s 105th goal in a Watford shirt which brought him level with Cliff Holton at 4th in the all-time goal scoring charts.  A great achievement.

Cleverley Takes a corner

Cleverley takes a corner

I am sure that I wasn’t the only person in the stadium who hoped that we wouldn’t repeat our mistake of the previous week when we sat back and defended our lead for most of the game.  The next chance fell Southampton’s way as Ward-Prowse tried a shot that was pushed clear by Gomes.  Southampton’s new star, Gabbiadini, had his first chance of the game as he latched on to a through ball and hit a shot that was easy for Gomes.  The visitors came closer to drawing level with a shot from distance by Redmond that flew just wide of the target.  At the other end Watford had a chance to increase the lead as a corner from Holebas was headed just wide by Okaka.  The next to threaten was Capoue who went on a run before cutting inside and trying a shot from distance that was just wide of the near post.  Southampton’s equalizer came in the 27th minute and resulted from a defensive mistake as a clearance from Britos went straight to Tadić who shot into the far corner.  Watford tried to hit back from a throw as Prödl headed the ball on to Kaboul whose shot was blocked.  Watford’s first booking came in very bizarre circumstances as Okaka was blatantly pulled back by Stephens.  No action was taken for the foul, but the Italian was booked for his complaints.  Southampton took the lead in time added on at the end of the first half.  The goal came out of nothing as a good passing move finished with Tadić playing the ball back to Redmond who found the far corner.  The half time whistle went to boos from some in the Rookery.

Deeney challenges Romeu for a header

Deeney challenges Romeu for a header

At half time there was a brief interview with Marcus Gayle who will always be Wonder Woman to me.  Also, as it was Disabled Access Day at Vicarage Road, there was an interview with a young man called George who was a passionate advocate of increasing disabled access everywhere.  His speech asking for support in ensuring that disabled fans are given equal access to facilities was met with unusually enthusiastic applause from a half time crowd that is usually otherwise occupied.  There was also a contribution from David Butler, the chair of the WFC Enables supporters group, who encouraged any interested fans to get involved (http://www.wfcenables.co.uk/home).

The first chance of the second half came as Niang played a long ball to Deeney who headed it down to Okaka, but Yoshida made a decisive tackle, taking the ball off his feet and putting it out for a throw.  Southampton had a couple of decent chances to increase their lead.  First, from a corner, the ball was cleared to Tadić whose terrific shot was tipped over by Gomes.  Then a Tadić free kick was prodded goalwards by Yoshida but Gomes again made a decent save to keep it out.  At the other end, a looping ball fell to Niang who didn’t have time to control it, so his volley flew a mile over the bar.

Holebas preparing for a free kick

Holebas preparing for a free kick

Mazzarri’s first substitution was to replace Capoue with Success, who was down needing treatment almost immediately but, thankfully, was able to continue.  In the 72nd minute, the applause for GT rang out and, if I am not mistaken, the Southampton goalkeeper, Forster, joined in, which was rather lovely.  The Hornets launched a promising move as Cleverley won the ball in midfield before passing it out to Okaka whose shot was blocked.  Then a dangerous cross into the Southampton box flew over a couple of heads before dropping to Deeney at the back post.  My scream of “Come on, Troy” must have put him off as he shot into the side netting.  The equalizer came with 11 minutes remaining as Success put in a low cross for Okaka who powered home.  Watford should have taken the lead a couple of minutes later as Okaka broke forward with Behrami alongside him, from our vantage point behind the goal he appeared to have space to shoot but delayed and was tackled by Stephens, the Saints immediately broke down the other end where Boufal’s shot should have been easy for Gomes, but he dropped the ball to the feet of Gabbiadini who poked the ball past Gomes.  So frustrating!  That was the last action of the game for the Italian talisman as he was replaced by Shane Long.

Britos, Holebas, Behrami and Okaka waiting for the ball to drop

Britos, Holebas, Behrami and Okaka waiting for the ball to drop

To add insult to injury for the home side, the visitors scored a fourth goal two minutes later as Redmond broke forward and belted a lovely shot past Gomes.  At this point, many in the Rookery had seen enough and there was a mass exodus.  Needless to say, I stayed.  The referee had been irritatingly fussy about blowing up for even the most innocuous challenges so, when Britos sent an opponent flying into the advertising hoardings, I feared that he would see red, but Mr Moss did not see any offence and waved play on.  Baffling!  Watford’s second substitution saw Doucouré coming on for Okaka.  Southampton looked certain to complete Watford’s humiliation with a fifth goal, but Boufal wasted his chance putting the shot into the side netting.  Surprisingly it was Watford who scored the last goal of the game in the final minute as a Niang cross was hit home by Doucouré to rather muted celebrations from the home fans who had stayed to the end of the game.

The scoreline could fool you into thinking that this was a seven goal thriller.  Sadly, it was nothing of the sort as the entertainment had come in bursts.  It was another frustrating game from the Hornets who are a good side that are only playing in fits and starts.  Southampton are a decent team, they were very well organized and capable of attacking at pace, which was where all of their goals came from.  Watford started and finished brightly, but there was a long period in the middle of the game when they seemed to disappear, which seems to be becoming a pattern.  As was the case last week, we were revitalized when Success came on.  I can’t help but hope that he regains full fitness very soon as I would very much like to see what he can do when given a whole 90 minutes.  So we go in to another enforced break with a trip to Selhurst Park to look forward to.  Oh the glamour of the Premier League!

Few Chances but a Decent Point

Niang challenging for a header

Niang challenging for a header

After a week free of live football, with the distraction of the thrills and spills of the FA Cup, it was great to be back at a game, although there was the usual stress that comes with a late kick-off as I worry that I have misremembered the kick-off time and will arrive in Watford with the game already underway or over. Thankfully, my journey took me down Vicarage Road at 3pm, where it was clear that they were preparing for a match but it was some time before kick-off. My smug feeling was soon wiped out as I arrived at the West Herts to find that it was already packed and my companions remarked that they didn’t think I was coming, being a part-timer. I was so insulted that I had to have a pint to calm down.

As with our previous game, we had happy memories of the reverse fixture early in the season, but West Ham had been on a good run of form recently so I wasn’t at all hopeful of a similar result. On the positive side, the results in the games earlier in the day meant that we wouldn’t finish the evening below 13th in the table.

Holebas takes a throw in

Holebas takes a throw in

Team news was two changes with Cathcart and Prödl making way for Janmaat and Behrami. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Cleverley, Behrami, Capoue; Zárate, Deeney and Niang.

The game started brilliantly for the Hornets. In the second minute, Cleverley played a ball over the top to Deeney who found Zárate in the box, the Argentine was bundled over by Kouyaté and the referee pointed to the spot. Deeney stepped up and powered the ball to Randolph’s right and into the bottom corner. There was a great chance to double the lead soon after as Niang won the ball in the midfield, went on a run and unleashed a powerful shot from outside the area that flew just over the target. At the other end a dangerous cross from Antonio was cleared by Britos in the middle of the box although, from our vantage point behind the goal, it looked as though it just bounced off the Watford man and could have flown anywhere. The first 15 minutes had contained some wonderful passing from the Hornets that, at one point, prompted a standing ovation. Capoue was the next to threaten the West Ham goal with a lovely turn and a shot that was just wide of the target.

Lining up for a corner

Lining up for a corner

The visitors had a decent chance to draw level as Arbeloa played the ball back to Snodgrass in the box, but Kaboul made a great block to avert the danger. Snodgrass threatened again, but this time his cut back in the box only reached Gomes. The West Ham man tried his luck again with a shot from distance that flew way over the bar. The visitors won a free kick in a dangerous position as Janmaat fouled Antonio on the left of the box earning himself a yellow card for his trouble. But Lanzini’s delivery was terrible, flying high and wide. As the half wound down, my gaze was drawn to the TV studio to our left where the pundits were having their hair and make-up done, the first time that I have seen beauty treatments in a football ground. In time added on at the end of the half, there was a dangerous chance for an equalizer as a cross-cum-shot from Cresswell was parried by Gomes, fortunately Holebas was the first to the loose ball and made the clearance. As I had been watching the action in the goal area, I had completely missed Zárate going down with an injury. It was quickly apparent that he was in a bad way as he received oxygen and, after a considerable period of treatment, the physios very carefully strapped him to the stretcher before they carried him off. Very worrying indeed. As he left the field, it was very gratifying to see the West Ham fans on their feet applauding and singing the name of their former player. He was replaced by Doucouré, much to the displeasure of those around me who would much rather have seen Success brought on. The last action of the half was a booking for Antonio for a nasty foul on Behrami that could easily have led to a sending off.

Britos lines up a free kick

Britos lines up a free kick

So Watford went in at the break with a one goal lead after a fairly even half. The Hornets had started brilliantly and played some lovely football, particularly in the first fifteen minutes, but, the penalty aside, neither keeper had to make a save worthy of the name.

Saturday was Academy Day at Vicarage Road and at half time Brandon Mason and Michael Folivi received commemorative match balls marking their Premier League debuts. Brandon said that he hoped to kick on and contribute a lot more to the first team. We all hope that comes to pass.

Early in the second half, the visitors were appealing for a penalty as Kouyaté and Niang tangled in the Watford box, but the decision was given to the home side. Mazzarri was forced into a second substitution due to injury as Janmaat made way for Cathcart. West Ham had a great chance to draw level on the hour mark as a free kick was headed back across goal and met with a header from Fonte that was kept out by a wonderful flying save from Gomes.  The first substitution for the visitors saw Snodgrass replaced by Ayew.

Cleverley taking a free kick

Cleverley taking a free kick

Watford had been sitting far too deep in the second half and, while they had done a great job of frustrating the Hammers, it is always a dangerous tactic. It looked to have backfired as a Cresswell cross was headed just wide of the target by Antonio. Then, with the Watford fans on their feet for the minute’s applause for GT on the 72nd minute, Antonio went on a surging run, his shot bounced off both posts rebounding to Ayew who finished past Gomes. It was frustrating, but had been coming as the Hammers had dominated possession in the second half. Just as I started to worry that the visitors would get a second and win the game, Mazzarri made a late substitution bringing Success on for Niang who, after a very bright start had completely disappeared. It was a very popular change among the Watford crowd and the excitement in the stands extended to the pitch as a lovely quick passing move finished with Success breaking into the box where, sadly, Reid was on hand to stop him. The Hammers finished the game with 10 men as Antonio went down in the box and handled the ball earning a second yellow card. Britos could have won the game for the Hornets as he rose to meet a corner, but he was being challenged and the header flew just over. I was pleasantly surprised when the fourth official indicated that there were only three minutes of added time. Watford should have scored right at the death as a corner from Cleverley led to a bit of pinball, finishing with Deeney heading the ball down to Success who shot just wide from a couple of yards out.

A draw was a fair result and I would certainly have taken a point before the game, but I was disappointed that we didn’t build on a lovely start to the game when the visitors looked distinctly second best. But we have come a long way if a draw against West Ham is a bit of a disappointment. Mid table obscurity will do me just fine.

No Shame in Defeat at Old Trafford

Commemorating the Munich disaster

Commemorating the Munich disaster

After back-to-back wins in the previous two matches, we travelled to Manchester with considerably more confidence about the game than had been the case when we bought the tickets on the day after the defeat to Millwall.  There were happy memories of the win at Vicarage Road earlier in the season, but the current United team are on a great run of form and a completely different proposition.  We have only ever won once at Old Trafford, that wonderful League Cup tie in 1978, a game that evokes happy memories even for somebody who only listened to the commentary on the radio.  I had no expectation of a second victory on this occasion.

I enjoyed delightful company on the train journey as, on the day after her 18th birthday, my niece was making her first visit to Old Trafford.  The journey got even better as we bumped into a friend, so she had an extra excuse for a lack of progress on her homework.

On arrival in Manchester, we met up with the North West ‘Orns at their pub of choice where my niece was dissuaded from her request for lemonade so enjoyed her first pre-match pint.  The pub has the added interest of being next door to the team hotel.  The Watford team coach was parked outside as we arrived and we were able to wave the players off through the windows.

Capoue challenging Pogba

Capoue challenging Pogba

Previous experience of the security at Old Trafford meant that we left the pub a considerable time before kick-off.  There is a veritable army on duty outside the away turnstiles.  The first phalanx has a cursory look in bags, the second checks tickets and the third does the thorough search of both bags and people, so you need quite some time to get into the ground.  Once inside you make your way to seats that have the least leg room of any stadium in the country.  I am only 5’6” and I struggle.  This is one stadium at which it is more comfortable to stand for the duration of the game.

Team news was that Mazzarri had made just the one change with Britos coming in for Behrami.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Cleverley, Capoue; Niang, Zárate, Holebas; Deeney.

Prior to kick-off they commemorated the 59th anniversary of the Munich disaster.  Families of the victims had been invited as guests of the club at the game.  They played “Flowers of Manchester” and the players gathered around the centre circle as if to honour a minute’s silence/applause, but there seemed to be a last minute change of plan and they went back to their pre-match huddle.

Deeney calling for the ball

Deeney calling for the ball

The home side had a very early chance when a cross flicked off a Watford head and fell to Ibrahimovic, whose shot was dreadful and way off target.  Ibrahimovic then played a lovely through ball for Mata, but Gomes came out to make the tackle.  Watford’s first chance came on 9 minutes as Niang tried a shot from the edge of the area but it was straight at de Gea in the United goal.  Mkhitaryan was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance that was easy for Gomes to gather.  At the other end, Zárate fed Niang whose shot flew well over the bar.  Martial cut inside and tried a shot from outside the area that deflected off Prödl and went wide.  Watford had a terrific chance to open the scoring as Holebas went on a run down the left before unleashing a shot that curled just wide of the far post.  At the other end, Pogba unleashed a shot from distance that Gomes pushed wide.  From a throw, Zárate tried a spectacular overhead kick, but it was an easy save for de Gea.  The first 20 minutes had been fairly even, but then the home side gained the upper hand and it was one way traffic.  It started with Ibrahimovic, who looked a mile offside when he received the ball, there was no flag but, thankfully, he shot well over.  Then a careless clearance from Prödl went straight to Valencia who battled past Niang before crossing for Pogba whose shot was saved.

Prodl lines up a free kick

Prodl lines up a free kick

There were two further chances just before the half hour.  First a cut back from Blind to Herrera who launched a powerful shot over the bar.  Then Mata played the ball back to Mkhitaryan who should have done better with his shot which again flew over.  The onslaught on the Watford goal continued as Mata crossed from the byline to Ibrahimovic whose close range header was brilliantly stopped by Gomes, the follow-up shot was blocked by Holebas.  The breakthrough finally came on 31 minutes as Martial crossed for Mata who finished from close range.  It had been coming and I feared that this would open the floodgates but, apart from a shot from Mkhitaryan just before half time that was easy enough for Gomes, that was the end of the goal chances in the first half.

We felt very fortunate to go in at half time only one goal behind, due to a mixture of superb goalkeeping from Gomes and poor finishing from the United players, with Ibrahimovic a particular culprit.  What had been particularly annoying from the Hornets was the profligacy with the ball.  All the great passing from the Arsenal game had completely disappeared as, too often, they struggled to find a yellow shirt.

Kaboul, Cleverley, Zarate and Janmaat line up for a free kick

Kaboul, Cleverley, Zarate and Janmaat line up for a free kick

At half time, I discovered another interesting quirk of the United security as, despite having spent 45 minutes in the ground, anyone who made their way to the concourse found that they would not be allowed back to their seats unless they produced their ticket.  As someone who frequently leaves their coat or bag on the seats, it was a relief that, for once, I had put the ticket in a pocket.  What an utterly ridiculous rule.

The home side had the first chance of the second half as Martial went on a run and shot across goal and just wide.  Watford had a decent chance for an equalizer as Zárate hit a free kick over the wall that needed a decent save from de Gea to tip it clear.  Man Utd’s second goal came on the hour.  Capoue was guilty of holding on to the ball for too long, was tackled and the home side launched a quick break that finished with Martial shooting past Gomes.  Watford had a chance to strike back as Deeney received a long ball from Prödl and fought off the attentions of Bailly before shooting wide of the near post.  At the other end Mkhitaryan found Ibrahimovic whose shot was deflected wide.  Watford had another half chance as Niang kept the ball under challenge in the box but, with Deeney in space, chose to shoot across the goal and the chance went begging.  The Frenchman threatened again, going on a great run before crossing for Janmaat, who should have done better, but skyed his shot.

Zarate, Deeney and Cleverley

Zarate, Deeney and Cleverley

The home side made the first change of the afternoon with Mata making way for Fellaini.  Deeney had a decent chance to reduce the deficit as he received a long ball in the box, he was challenged as he went to shoot and de Gea was able to parry his shot.  Mazzarri’s first change was to bring Okaka on for Zárate.  The Italian made an immediate impression advancing down the left before cutting the ball back, his pass was blocked just before it reached Deeney.  He was in action again soon after, playing the ball to Janmaat whose shot was just wide of the near post.  The home side launched a rare second half attack but Gomes dropped to block a shot from Mkhitaryan.  There was an interesting sight soon after as a large phalanx of stewards lined up in front of one of the home stands, apparently to prevent a pitch invasion that they clearly felt would be prompted by Rashford taking the field in place of Martial!  Ibrahimovic finished the afternoon as he had started it, receiving the ball in the box and, with the goal at his mercy, flicking his shot away from the target.  Each side made a late substitution with Cathcart replacing Success for the visitors and Mkhitaryan making way for Lingard for the hosts.  As is usual, with 5 minutes to go, the Old Trafford tourists were streaming out of the ground.  It seems so wrong not to stay and applaud a win, but I am old fashioned like that.  As it happened, they didn’t miss anything and the game ended with a win for the home side.

The second half had been much more pleasing from the Hornets who had given a good account of themselves and had created some decent chances.  This game was always going to be a free hit and results below us meant that we finished the day feeling fairly confident of our place in the division.

As we walked back to the metro station, I told my niece the terrible story of Munich.  Then asked her impression of Old Trafford, “I thought it would be more impressive.”  She won’t be rushing back.

The Second Good Win in a Week

Order of service for Graham Taylor's funeral

Order of service for Graham Taylor’s funeral

The week running up to this match had been an emotional rollercoaster for fans of the Hornets.  The dreadful cup defeat to Millwall had been followed by a magnificent win at Arsenal.  But both events were overshadowed on Wednesday as we said goodbye to Graham Taylor.  The family were very gracious in allowing the funeral to be broadcast to those who gathered outside the church.  The service was very sad but also uplifting.  His children and grandchildren all spoke beautifully about the family man that they knew.  I thought the club and the council did them proud with the little details.  The One Bell, which is boarded up had been decorated with pictures and quotes from GT.  There was also a gorgeous order of service that was handed to those outside, allowing us to join in with the hymns, which included “Abide with Me”.  A scanned copy of the order of service is available at http://www.wfc.net/files/GT/GT_Order_of_Service.pdf.

On Saturday we were back at Vicarage Road for the visit of Burnley.  Those who had been at the mid-week game were waxing lyrical about the performance, but there was a niggling feeling that this Watford team tends to raise its game for the big clubs and that Burnley, despite their failure to win on the road this season, were just the sort of team to cause us problems.

Team news was that Mazzarri made two changes from the team that won at the Emirates with Britos and Janmaat replaced by Holebas and Zárate, both of whom were returning from suspension, which seemed a little bizarre given that this was the Argentine’s debut.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Prödl, Holebas; Behrami; Niang, Cleverley, Capoue, Zárate; Deeney.  The 4-1-4-1 formation that had served us well in the previous game making another appearance.

Deeney and Niang celebrate the first goal

Deeney and Niang celebrate the first goal

The notable action in the first few minutes of the game was all related to cards.  First, Niang was booked after flying into a tackle on Ward.  A minute later, Hendricks was shown a straight red card for a nasty foul on Holebas.  Playing against 10 men isn’t always easy, especially when the team is as well organized as Burnley, so it was a relief when Watford took the lead in the tenth minute as a lovely cross from Niang was headed home by Deeney from close range.  With Troy now having scored three goals in the last four games, it seems hard to believe that such a long period elapsed between his 99th and 100th goals.  There was another booking soon after as Holebas was penalised for a high foot as he challenged Barton.  Watford had a great chance for a second goal as Niang exchanged passes with Deeney before unleashing a shot that Heaton tipped over.  Then, from a throw, Zárate hit a lovely shot from the edge of the area that Heaton managed to catch.  Burnley’s first on-target shot came just before the half hour as Lowton tried his luck, but it was an easy catch for Gomes.  The Watford keeper was called into action again soon after tipping over a free kick that Barton hit from the edge of the area.  Niang threatened again, going on a lovely run before taking a shot from the edge of the box that was blocked, the ball rebounded back to him and his second shot was comfortably saved by Heaton.  Watford had another decent chance as Cleverley passed the ball out to Zárate on the wing, he burst into the box before shooting just wide of the far post.  Then Holebas took a short corner, exchanging passes with Zárate before crossing for Capoue whose shot was blocked by the face of Barnes.  As we reached time added on at the end of the half, I was beginning to worry that we had wasted too many chances, then Holebas whipped in a lovely cross that Niang met with a superb header and the Hornets went in to the break two goals to the good.

Celebrating Niang's goal

Celebrating Niang’s goal

The second half started with the Hornets on top.  A lovely early move finished with a cross from Holebas, but no Watford player was on hand to finish.  There was a better chance soon after as a cross from Capoue was just a fraction too far in front of Deeney for him to apply the finishing touch.  At the other end, a Burnley corner was headed goalwards by Keane, but Gomes dropped to push it around the post.  Sean Dyche was the first to make a substitution, replacing Gray with new signing, Brady.  Mazzarri’s first change was to bring Doucouré on for Behrami.  I was much more comfortable with that change on this occasion than I had been midweek.  Watford continued to threaten the Burnley goal as Capoue received a cut back from Holebas, but his shot was saved.  Burnley threatened briefly as Barnes had the ball in the Watford box but Cleverley just took it off his feet.  The Hornets created another excellent chance as Niang crossed for Deeney whose shot was blocked on the line.  As we reached the 72nd minute, the Watford crowd got to their feet to applaud and sing Graham Taylor’s name.  It was very pleasing to see that both those in the Director’s box and a good portion of the visiting crowd joined in.  Burnley had a rare shot with a powerful strike from Arfield, which was blocked by Gomes.  That was the last act for the Burnley man as he was replaced by Westwood.

Zarate waits for a corner

Zarate waits for a corner

There was a flurry of activity in the Watford box following a corner as a shot from Barnes was cleared off the line, the ball reached Barton on the edge of the area, his shot was also blocked and the ball went out for a corner.  When I saw Prödl arguing with the referee, I thought that he was disputing the corner.  Then the awful realization dawned that a penalty had been awarded and Prödl had been shown the yellow card for handball.  Barnes stepped up to take the spot kick and, on this occasion, the Gomes psychology did not work and the shot went in off the post.  It was very frustrating as, despite a flurry of activity, Burnley really hadn’t looked like scoring, but Watford would have to keep it tight for the remaining 12 minutes.  Mazzarri made a second substitution as Niang, who had put in another terrific performance, made way for Success.  But the next chance fell to the visitors as Brady broke forward and unleashed a shot that was straight at Gomes.  There were two late substitutions as Vokes replaced Boyd for the visitors and Janmaat came on for Zárate.  In time added on, the Watford players seemed determined to push the self-destruct button.  First Gomes decided to dribble after receiving a back pass instead of wellying upfield, and was almost caught out.  Then Cathcart gave the ball away to Barnes on the edge of the box and Gomes had to make a smart save to stop the shot.  The keeper was so furious with his defender that he had to be held back by Prödl.

Zarate and Deeney wait for a throw-in

Zarate and Deeney wait for a throw-in

So it was a relief to see Watford on the attack in the final minute, Success crossed and Deeney powered the ball home to secure the win.  Or so we thought.  I was in mid-celebration when I turned back to the pitch to see a Burnley player flying upfield and it became apparent that the goal had been disallowed and the points were still up for grabs.  Thankfully a late free kick for the visitors came to nothing and the Hornets achieved their second win in a week.  The manner of the win had been rather frustrating as, after looking really comfortable for most of the game, we really shouldn’t have been holding on at the end.

But what a difference a week makes.  After the abject performance in the cup against Millwall and some very disappointing showings over the past few weeks, most of us were looking nervously down the table.  Two wins in a week and we are back in the top half and looking forward to the rest of the season.  The club have done some terrific business in the transfer window.  It was very sad to see both Ighalo and Guedioura go, they were terrific servants to the club.  But the return of Cleverley and the addition of Niang and Zárate seems to have strengthened the squad considerably.  Zarate did well on his first showing.  Niang was superb, scoring one goal and creating the other, and he already seems to have built up an understanding with Deeney.  Cleverley was named man of the match and deservedly so.  The smiles are now back on the faces of Watford fans as we seem to be over our slump and can look forward to the rest of the season with some optimism.

That Was for You, Graham

Pre-match huddle at the Emirates

Pre-match huddle at the Emirates

In Graham Taylor’s first period in charge, wins against the Gunners were commonplace, but times have changed and we travelled to the Emirates with very little hope of anything other than a harsh defeat.  After the dreadful game on Sunday, I had spent my day at work with a very heavy heart, wondering why I was subjecting myself and, more importantly, my niece to another night of misery.  The fact that the club had decided not to move the game to Wednesday, despite playing on Sunday, seemed to indicate that they had written it off and would concentrate their efforts on Saturday’s game at home to Burnley.

The match had taken on an extra significance as it was on the eve of GT’s funeral.  For that reason, the scarf that I bought from Peter Percy in Hemel in 1979, which has not left the house in many a year, got an airing.

Pre-match the City Orns gathered and shared predictions.  Most were for a heavy defeat.  Mike mentioned that he had got in the habit of betting on 2-1 for every game, but thought he’d give it a miss for this one.

Team news was that there were nine changes from Sunday, with only Britos and Kaboul keeping their places.  This would be our first chance to see our intriguing new signing, M’Baye Niang.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Behrami; Janmaat, Cleverley, Capoue, Niang; and Deeney lining up in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

Returning upfield for the restart after taking the lead

Returning upfield for the restart after taking the lead

There was a positive start to the game from the Hornets, but it took us all by surprise when Cleverley played a short free kick to Kaboul who, with the assistance of a slight deflection, fired past Cech to put the Hornets into a totally unexpected lead.  I couldn’t help but despair at the modern football fan, as the away crowd decided that the most appropriate chant to celebrate going a goal up against Arsenal at the Emirates was “How sh*t must you be, we’re winning away.”  The voice of reason/Cassandra next to me warned, “It’s too early.”  But, no sooner had we come to terms with the fact that we had scored, than we had a second.  Capoue went on a storming run from the halfway line, his shot was blocked by Cech, but rebounded to Deeney who poked it into the empty net.  This goal was greeted with a mental celebration and “This is the best trip I’ve ever been on.”  Much better.  There was a long way to go, but this was incredibly impressive from the Hornets.  The home side were forced into an early substitution as Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for the Ramsey, who had picked up an injury.  The Arsenal players were becoming increasingly frustrated as Watford continued to dominate, and Gabriel was booked for hacking down Niang.  My heart was in my mouth as Monreal went down in the Watford box.  The referee blew up and I thought he was about to point to the spot but, instead, he pointed at the Arsenal man and brandished a yellow card for diving.

Cleverley takes a free kick

Cleverley takes a free kick

Watford continued to threaten the Arsenal goal as Janmaat played a short pass to Capoue on the edge of the area, but his shot was comfortably saved by Cech.  The Frenchman then went on another run, this time down the wing to the byline, before crossing for Prödl whose header had to be tipped over by Cech.  Watford had another great chance to increase their lead after a corner was repelled to Britos, who belted a shot that was blocked by Giroud.  Janmaat was the next to try his luck, meeting a cross from Deeney with a shot that required a great save from Cech to keep it out.  Capoue, who was playing a blinder, again won the ball in midfield before finding Janmaat who crossed for Niang, whose first shot for the Hornets flew over the bar.  There was a rare foray by the home side into the Watford box, but Sánchez’s effort was well over the bar.  The Chilean had another chance to threaten the Watford goal when he received the ball in the box, but Cathcart just took it off his feet.

The half time whistle went to finish a breathtaking half of football from the Hornets.  The slow, ponderous performance we witnessed in the Millwall game had been replaced with all action attacking married to a pressing defence, and it was an absolute joy to watch. At half time, the fans in the concourse were bouncing and celebrating loudly.  I saw Pam.  Her response to my question “Where did that come from?” was an emotional, “GT.”

Deeney and Niang waiting for the ball to drop

Deeney and Niang waiting for the ball to drop

Wenger made a substitution at the start of the second half, replacing Giroud with Walcott.  The substitute was involved almost immediately as a ball from Koscielny found him on the right of the box, but his shot was wide of the near post.  Arsenal were a changed team since the restart and Iwobi beat Cathcart on the wing before crossing for Walcott whose shot was blocked by Gomes.  The Watford keeper was in action again soon after, stretching out a hand to grab a shot from Iwobi.  Özil was the next to threaten the Watford goal with a shot from the edge of the box, but Gomes was equal to it.  The home side finally got the breakthrough on 58 minutes as Sánchez chipped a ball over the defence to Iwobi who volleyed in off the post.  Mazzarri’s first substitution was an odd one, replacing Behrami, who had been excellent, with Doucouré.  I can only think that Behrami was flagging as I would have preferred his defensive presence.  Watford had a rare second half attack as Deeney ran into the box before going to ground, but the referee waved play on.  Both sides made substitutions around the midpoint of the half with Lucas replacing Coquelin for Arsenal and Watford new boy, Niang, making way for Success.  The customary chants and applause for GT rang out soon after, although they were a minute early by my reckoning.  Arsenal’s next goal chance came with a shot from distance by Gabriel, which flew a mile over the bar.  At the other end a corner from Capoue was headed well wide by Cathcart.

Deeney

Deeney

At this point, my nerves were shot and I turned to my niece, “I’m too old for this!”  “I’m too young for this!” was the retort.  Into the last 10 minutes and Arsenal won a free kick on the edge of the Watford box.  It was in a dangerous position, so I was greatly relieved when it hit the wall and went out.  The resultant corner was headed out, but only as far as Monreal whose shot was, thankfully, well wide of the post.  Mazzarri’s second change was to replace Deeney with Okaka.  After the Italian’s poor showing on Sunday, I was doubtful about this change as well.  Lucas had a great chance to grab the equalizer as he latched on to a throw and unleashed a powerful shot that rebounded out from under the crossbar.  Having been counting the seconds since the Arsenal goal, it was almost physically painful to see the board held up informing us that we would have to survive for another five minutes.  But the nearest the home side came to the equalizer in time added on was a weak shot from Lucas that was easily gathered by Gomes.  As the various injury time stopwatches among the away crowd ran down to zero, Watford won a corner and there was hardly time to take it before the final whistle went to ecstatic cheers from the away end.  “That was for you, Graham,” yelled my sister, echoing the thoughts of every Watford fan in the ground.

Cleverley lines up a free kick

Cleverley lines up a free kick

As we applauded the players, I spotted a bloke in a black puffer jacket with a huge smile on his face.  Flipping heck, that’s Walter!  Although it has to be said that Paolo de Toffol completely outdid him in the mental celebration category.  All of the players came over to applaud the fans and to give their shirts away.  It had been a magnificent performance by the whole team.  The energy and attacking purpose in the first half had Arsenal in disarray.  In the second half, when the home side were in the ascendancy, the defence had been solid and well organized and Gomes was rarely troubled.  A special mention must go to Capoue who, having been largely anonymous for some time now, put in a man of the match performance running the Arsenal defence ragged, particularly in the first half.  The newcomer, Niang’s, debut was very pleasing with one particularly memorable moment when he beat Gabriel on the wing and went on a run that was only stopped when he was fouled.  On tonight’s showing, I am expecting great things from him.

As the crowd and the players celebrated together at the end of a wonderful night of football, there was only one chant that seemed appropriate and “One Graham Taylor” rang out from the away end.  This was a performance that he would have been proud of and there is no higher praise for a Watford team than that.

A Dismal Afternoon at the Den

Ben Watson leading the team out at the Den

Ben Watson leading the team out at the Den

When this game was moved for television, the potential for a good sized crowd immediately disappeared.  It is an easy enough journey from Watford, but a midday kick-off on a Sunday in January is enough to make most people opt for the sofa.  So I was delighted (and not a little proud) when my niece said she would join us.  Especially as it wasn’t even a new ground for her.

I had been pleased to hear the announcement earlier in the week that the controversial compulsory purchase order by Lewisham Council relating to land around the New Den that would have threatened Millwall’s future residence had been abandoned.  So it was rather sad to go there and see the stands so sparsely populated.

Before the game, Mazzarri had been reported as saying that he would make 11 changes if he could.  In fact, he made 7, a great chance for some of the fringe players to make a case for more game time.  The starting line-up was Pantilimon; Kaboul, Mariappa, Britos; Djédjé, Doucouré, Watson, Guedioura, Mason; Okaka and Sinclair.  I was pleased to see Watson back in the team, as well as Mariappa making his second debut.  The tannoy announcer decided to make a big deal of the fact that he would struggle with all the foreign names in the Watford team, although pretending to struggle with Costel Pantilimon was rather lame.  This, and a repeated request for the lads to bring their ladies to the Den on Valentines Day, felt like a throwback to the 80s.

Mason and Onyedinma tangle

Mason and Onyedinma tangle

Before kick-off, there was some discussion among our party of the 6-1 win, which it is hard to believe was in 2010.  I missed that game due to a work trip to Tokyo (I’m still seething).  The pessimist in me couldn’t help but say that we wouldn’t get a similar result.

The Hornets took the kick-off, but almost immediately Millwall launched a counter-attack through Morison whose cross was met with a strike from Gregory that, thankfully, rebounded off the crossbar.  The fear at this point was that 6-1 was a possibility, but that it would favour the home side.  This fear grew as a corner was headed off the line by Mariappa.  Then a shot from Craig took a nasty deflection causing Pantilimon to have to tip it over the bar.  The resulting corner was headed just wide by Cooper.  The first goal attempt from the visitors didn’t come until the 16th minute with a shot from distance from Guedioura that flew well wide.  The Algerian came closer soon after with a free-kick that took a slight deflection before hitting the outside of the post.  Okaka was having a torrid afternoon, going down far too easily under challenges by players he should have been able to shrug off.  The home crowd decided to join in the persecution with a chant of “You’re just a fat Danny Shittu!”  Sinclair should have done better after breaking into the box, but fell over as he attempted to shoot, his pleas for a penalty were waved away.

Gones takes a goal kick

Gones takes a goal kick

With 10 minutes of the half remaining there was a mix up as Britos played the ball back to Pantilimon, Gregory nipped in and, in the scramble to clear, the keeper was injured and Mariappa’s intervention had the home crowd screaming for a penalty for handball.  The Millwall fans lived up to their vile reputation chanting ‘let him die’ as the clearly injured Pantilimon was helped on to a stretcher.  Gomes took his place in goal and was called into action almost immediately to stop a shot from Gregory.  From the corner, Morison headed goalwards, but Guedioura was on hand to head the ball off the line.

It had been a frustrating first half.  The visitors had the bulk of the play but failed to test Archer in the Millwall goal.  The Watford players were spending far too much time passing the ball around, while Millwall launched pacy counter attacks and actually looked like scoring.

The home side started the second half in a similar manner to the first with a shot from Gregory that just cleared the bar.  At the other end there was a decent chance as a cross from Djédjé was diverted goalwards by Cooper, but Archer made the save.

Okaka knocked off the ball

Okaka struggling with the Millwall approach

Watford had another chance when Mason crossed from the opposite wing, but Okaka just failed to connect.  The Italian then felt that he was pulled back as he challenged for a cross from Guedioura and complained loudly to the referee or anyone else who would listen.  By this point, he should have worked out that he was going to have to fight his own battles as the referee wasn’t going to help him.  In the build-up Djédjé had gone down injured and the Millwall fans continued their charm offensive cheering as a stretcher was brought on to the pitch.  Thankfully it wasn’t needed and nor was Janmaat who had readied to come on.  From a Kaboul cross, Okaka again appeared to be held down allowing the keeper to punch clear.  Half way through the second period, Djédjé did make way for Janmaat.  He hadn’t had the best of games, so it was to be hoped that the Dutchman would provide more of an attacking threat.  An attempt by Sinclair to break into the box was stopped by an excellent tackle on the edge of the area.  Jerome was replaced soon after by Deeney, whose name had been sung with some enthusiasm as he warmed up.  Troy was involved almost immediately as he headed a ball from Watson goalwards, but it was a fairly easy catch for Archer.  Mason then went flying into a tackle and was lucky only to see a yellow card.  Then a bit of pinball in the area finished with a save from Gomes.

The return of Mariappa

The return of Mariappa

Just as we were contemplating a replay at Vicarage Road, a cross reached Morison in the box and he finished through the legs of Gomes.  The home side were celebrating a second soon after as a corner was bundled home by Wallace, but it was ruled out for handball.  The home side had one final attempt to finish the game as Wallace tried a shot from distance, but Gomes was equal to it.  There was a flurry of activity as the visitors tried to equalize, first through a header from Deeney that was caught by Archer.  Then, in time added on, Troy looked sure to score with only the keeper to beat, but a last ditch intervention from Webster allowed him to block the shot and the Hornets were out of the cup.

The final whistle was met with loud boos from the travelling fans.  It had been a shocking performance mostly due to a distinct lack of effort.  Despite having the majority share of possession, they had managed only a single shot on target.  The players drafted in had not impressed.  Okaka couldn’t cope with the physical attentions of the Millwall players which, for a man of his stature, is just shocking.  Sinclair was anonymous and Djédjé offered little.  Guedioura put in more effort than most, but his execution was found wanting.  Watson, Mason and Mariappa were the only ‘fringe’ players that didn’t let themselves down.  It wasn’t until Deeney came on that Watford really threatened the Millwall goal.  Given the quality of the team that was selected, that is just unacceptable.  The action that summed up the afternoon for me was when a Millwall attack broke down with many of their players committed forward.  Instead of immediately breaking downfield, the Watford players decided to play the ball about between themselves giving the opposition plenty of time to regroup.  Having watched Millwall threaten on the counter all afternoon, you do have to wonder.

Next up a trip to Arsenal on Tuesday.  I’m dreading it.