Despite the late kick-off, I left London at the same time as I would have for a 3pm game. I went straight to the hotel to see if there was a possibility of an early check-in. As I neared, I spotted a familiar face, so we both checked in and dropped our bags/toothbrush before heading to the pub. When the details had come through of the proposed pre-match pub, I was slightly put off to find out that it was called the Castle Hotel. On arrival it was clear that this was far from the hotel bar that I had been expecting, instead it was a proper old-fashioned pub with real ale and a back room that often hosts live music. Over the next hour or so, our group gathered and occupied a couple of tables in the back room. All managed to resist the temptation to bang out a tune on the piano that was available. Just before we left, a couple of guys came in and occupied a table in the corner next to us having first shared the information that John Peel had once interviewed Ian Curtis at that very table. A little snippet of information that gave the rather shabby looking back room an unlikely glamour.
Having had a couple of drinks there, we moved on to a Thai restaurant in China Town for a very tasty lunch before getting the tram to the stadium. On our last visit the journey to the ground took rather longer than expected due to a long wait for a tram, so on this occasion we gave ourselves plenty of time. We didn’t want to miss an early goal again!
On the tram, I found myself sitting next to a City fan who, when I expressed my lack of confidence about the game, mentioned that they had a number of injuries. That didn’t make me feel any better even though Gracia had announced that he now had a fully fit squad to choose from. When the team news came through, we found that Javi had decided to make the most of that embarrassment of riches by making seven changes, including replacing 3 of the back 4 and leaving Deeney on the bench. So our starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Britos, Kabasele, Masina; Femenía, Cleverley, Capoue, Doucouré, Success; Gray. I understood the logic of making the changes, especially as we have a tricky FA Cup quarter-final next week, but at that point I suggested that we go back to the pub.
The first event of note in the game was a booking for Walker for a foul on Success. This was to be a rare occasion in the game when a Watford player had possession. City had their first attempt on goal soon after as David Silva headed a cross from Mahrez wide of the target. The first attack for the visitors came as Janmaat played a through ball to Gray, but the ball was easily gathered by Ederson. City threatened again with a shot from a narrow angle by David Silva that Foster was able to block.
The Watford keeper was in action again soon after coming to punch a free kick from Gündogan clear. The next chance for the home side came from a cross from Zinchenko, a slight deflection prevented it reaching Agüero and it went out for a corner. The home side should have taken the lead after half an hour when a cross from Bernardo Silva reached Agüero who, with the goal at his mercy, headed just wide of the near post. They also looked certain to score when Sterling broke into the box with only the keeper to beat, but Janmaat, who had been in pursuit, managed to catch up and frustrate him with a fantastic tackle. There was a half chance for City as a cross reached David Silva whose header was an easy catch for Foster. Into time added on at the end of the half, Foster came to claim a speculative shot from Agüero but was only able to put it out for a corner. The delivery was met by the head of Success, whose clearance dropped to Mahrez, but the shot was just wide of the target. So, we reached half time with the game goalless. It had been all City, with the Hornets not mustering a shot on target. But the defensive efforts of the visitors had been impressive and restricted the chances for the home side.
The second half started disastrously for the Hornets. From the other end of the ground, it appeared that Watford had let in a really soft goal from Sterling, so it was a relief when the lineman’s flag was raised. But, following protests from the City players, the referee had a very long conversation with the lino before indicating that the goal would stand. It was a bizarre decision by all accounts and the Watford players were furious, but their protests fell on deaf ears. I can’t help feeling that their anger at the injustice was a factor in their conceding a second goal a few minutes later, another simple finish for Sterling from a square ball from Mahrez. A few Watford fans had seen enough at this point and left the stand. Sterling got his hat trick on the hour mark as he latched on to a through ball from David Silva and chipped the ball over Foster. This led to more departures including the family who were sitting in front of us. In my opinion this was poor parenting. Watching your team get thrashed is character building. Guardiola clearly thought that Sterling’s work was done as he was replaced by Sané. I had to laugh at that point, because if I didn’t I feared that I would cry. Gracia also made a change bringing Deeney and Deulofeu on for Success and Femenía. This turned out to be an inspired substitution as, with their first touches of the game, Deeney knocked Kompany out of the way to get on the end of a free-kick from Foster that he headed on to Deulofeu who sped upfield and finished past Ederson. That cheered me up no end.
City tried to restore their three goal advantage, but the shot from Aguero was into Foster’s midriff. The next to threaten was Bernardo Silva who latched on to a through ball from Mahrez, but Foster was equal to the shot. Guardiola made his second substitution bringing Jesus on for Agüero. Gracia’s final change saw Cathcart coming on in place of Britos. City looked sure to get a fourth goal when Jesus rounded Foster, but Kabasele made a superb tackle to stop him. The final substitution for the home side came at the start of the additional time as City wonder boy Foden replaced Mahrez. But there was no further action of note, so the game ended with a two goal defeat for the Hornets, which was more than respectable.
Due to the late kick-off, the post match analysis was brief and occurred as we walked to a music venue near Oxford Road station in order to see a Lebanese band playing songs of protest against human rights issues in relation to women and LGBT folk. The comments between the songs were so interesting that I was disappointed not to be able to understand the Arabic lyrics. It was a fabulous end to a day on which the football wasn’t expected to give us much pleasure.
Like the majority of Watford fans, I don’t travel to places like City expecting anything out of the game, so the fact that the home side had the vast majority of the possession and Watford had only the single shot on target came as no surprise. Unlike the trip to Liverpool, Watford were more effective in defence and, had the referee not interfered, the result may have been more favourable. But the scoreline was a fair reflection of the game and, given the other results on Saturday, has not adversely affected our position in the table. So time to forget that one and prepare for the early kick-off next Saturday and the opportunity to reach the FA Cup semi-final. Palace will be difficult opponents, but they are very beatable so we all need to bring our best game. If we do, it could be an occasion to savour. I’m nervous already!