Memories of the recent dreadful performance at Vicarage Road against the Potters and the capitulation to Spurs on Sunday meant that I set off on my journey to Stoke with no hope of any pleasure to be gained from the evening’s entertainment. But the afternoon started rather well, as I unexpectedly encountered a friend at Euston so we spent a very pleasant journey chatting about our various activities over the Christmas period.
The designated pre-match pub (for the two of us) had signs on the doors indicating that it was home fans only. However, a previous visit had shown that they did not enforce this terribly strictly. This was very pleasing as the real ale, the food and the atmosphere were all first class and it was no surprise that it was soon populated with familiar faces from our travels. We decided to take the bus to the ground which, due to traffic, seemed to be within touching distance of the stadium lights for quite some time before we were dropped off. Once in the ground, I donned my Watford regalia (scarf, shirt and socks) and was wrapped up warm at a stadium notorious for being cold at the best of times. The pre-match flag wavers around the ground were not kitted out in Stoke uniforms, but appeared to be a random selection of local children in colourful coats and bobble hats which was rather nice.
Team news was that Mazzarri had made three changes from Sunday with Cathcart and Ighalo replaced by Britos and Kabasele, and Behrami, who was rumoured still to be carrying an injury, taking the place of the (presumably more severely) injured Amrabat. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Kabasele, Britos; Doucouré, Guedioura, Behrami, Capoue, Holebas; Deeney. The chants in the concourse prior to the game were all about parking the bus. Whatever the tactics, we needed to see a far more committed performance than on Sunday.
The news that Behrami was starting, injured or not, had me punching the air and that reaction was justified as soon as he took the pitch as he was immediately organizing and harrying the players. We really miss him when he is not there. But the first chance of the game fell to Stoke as Crouch headed wide after a corner. Watford’s first shot came from a Guedioura free kick that was repelled to Holebas who, unfortunately, launched his effort over the bar. The home side were almost gifted a goal due to a misunderstanding between Behrami and Prödl, who went for the same ball then left it for each other allowing Allen to sneak in and feed Arnautovic who went on a dangerous run into the area where he was stopped by a great tackle from Britos.
The first card of the game went to Diouf who stopped a break from Holebas by pulling him to the ground. A great header from Kabasele reached Prödl who battled his way into the box, but his shot flew harmlessly across the front of the goal. There were loud appeals from the away stand for a penalty as a cross from Kabasele appeared to be handled in the box, but the referee waved play on. There was a scary moment for the Hornets as a header from Crouch was parried by Gomes and ricocheted off Behrami back in the direction of the goal before it was finally cleared. At the other end, there was a gilt-edged opportunity for the visitors as a lovely through ball from Holebas reached Doucouré in space but, instead of going for goal, he hesitated before cutting the ball back to Guedioura and the chance was lost. I was becoming increasingly frustrated at this point as the lads seemed to be determined to score the perfect goal when taking a shot would at least give us a chance of scoring. With four minutes to go to half time Behrami, who had been limping for a while, went down in need of treatment. On a number of occasions this season, it has taken far too long for the substitute to get ready to replace an injured player. In this instance, Ighalo was stripped and ready on the touchline before Behrami had left the field, only for Valon to turn around and come back on leaving Odion to return to the bench. Just as it appeared that the game would reach half-time goalless, the Watford defence fell asleep at a corner and Shawcross was given the freedom of the area to finish past Gomes. It was almost the last kick of the half as the whistle went straight after the restart. I braced myself for the crowd’s reaction to this setback and was very pleased that as the players walked towards the tunnel, which was in the corner in front of us, they were greeted by loud, encouraging applause and chants of “Watford FC.”
The goal felt like a real kick in the teeth after a very even half in which my major criticism of the team was that they were reluctant to shoot when getting a sight of the goal. With all the injury woes, the players didn’t deserve that.
As expected, Ighalo replaced Behrami at the start of the second half which began brilliantly for the visitors as Doucouré unleashed a terrific curling shot that Grant did really well to keep out of the net. Sadly, Watford were two goals down a couple of minutes later as a routine cross into the box was inexplicably missed by Prödl and Crouch, lurking behind him, had an easy finish. The crowd’s frustration started to build in the away end. Their ire was particularly provoked by the corner routine that consisted of a second player standing just in from the touchline, but playing no role in the delivery which was launched straight into the box. I can only assume that the tactic was designed to draw defenders out of the box, but the single defender standing just outside the box didn’t seem to create any advantage that would outweigh the presence of another Watford head to meet the corner.
In contrast to the reaction on Sunday after conceding, Watford heads did not go down and they were making every effort to pull a goal back. From a free kick, Capoue played a short ball to Guedioura whose powerful shot was blocked. Then Kaboul played a through ball to Deeney who crossed for Ighalo, but the Nigerian’s shot was into a group of Stoke defenders. Each side made a substitution at the half way mark in the second period with Afellay replacing Diouf for the home side and Sinclair coming on for Guedioura for the visitors. With 20 minutes to go, there were chances at both ends as a decent free-kick from Holebas had to be punched clear by Grant and then a lovely shot from Stoke substitute, Afellay, curled just wide of the near post. Stoke had a great chance of a third as a cross was headed down by Crouch to Walters, but Gomes smothered the shot. Watford then had a couple of great chances of their own as Capoue’s corner was met with a header from Sinclair that was cleared off the line, Capoue sent the ball back in to the box and this time it was headed just wide by Prödl. Then a punched clearance from Grant was headed down by Deeney to Igahlo whose shot was disappointingly weak and easily saved. Mazzarri’s final change saw Folivi come on in place of Prödl. In the times that I have seen Folivi play for the U18s and development teams, I have enjoyed watching him, so was delighted to see him make his debut for the first team, although it was under very difficult circumstances. From pre-match songs about parking the bus, the travelling faithful were now extolling the benefits of having four strikers on the pitch. Sadly it wasn’t to lead to a change in fortunes in front of goal. The final chances of the game fell to the home side as Walters got the wrong side of Holebas and bore down on goal before Gomes made an excellent save to deny him. From the resulting corner, Shawcroft fired wide.
There was disappointment at the final whistle. Unusually Mazzarri applauded and waved to the crowd as he left the pitch, although the position of the tunnel right in front of us was likely the prime reason for this. The players looked despondent but many of them showed their appreciation by giving their shirts to some of the travelling fans. The post-match reaction among those that travelled was generally positive. The team had picked itself due to the dearth of fully fit players. Mazzarri also admitted that he had played Behrami knowing that he wasn’t fully fit but, assuming that it doesn’t mean a lengthier lay-off for the player, it was a gamble worth taking as he brings leadership and organization to the midfield that has been lacking in recent weeks and he ran his socks off. Doucouré was also a different player when in the position that he was expecting to play, and he fashioned Watford’s best chances of the game. The disappointing thing was that, yet again, we were punished for a couple of defensive mistakes. No tactical game plan can overcome a lapse in concentration. Still, we asked for a reaction after the Tottenham game and we certainly got what we asked for as there was no lack of effort among the players on show.
We now have a couple of weeks to regroup as it is likely that the Burton game will see more of the youngsters given a chance. We have some tricky fixtures coming up, so both players and supporters need to band together to get through this sticky patch. With the transfer window open, hopefully we can bring some players in to make up for some of the longer term injuries. But I truly believe that a positive support from the stands is an essential element and it is the only thing that the fans can do to help the team so let us all make this our new year’s resolution.