I always look forward to the Boxing Day game, so the news that it had been moved to an evening kick-off for the television cameras was met with some irritation. A lovely afternoon walk through the Hertfordshire countryside proved a pleasant distraction from the action at the other grounds, but I was soon back to following our changing position in the table and worrying about what time to arrive for a 7:30 kick-off on a bank holiday. Thankfully the roads were quiet and there were still seats in the West Herts when we arrived. It was lovely to have Amelia back with us as her university studies and Saturday job have limited her attendance this season.
As we walked to the ground, it still seemed very quiet until we reached Vicarage Road and encountered a group of noisy Chelsea fans. I was rather surprised only to see one tout on the way, they obviously take Christmas off too. We didn’t arrive long before kick-off, but it was clear from the number of empty seats that a good number of people had decided to stay at home and watch this one on television.
Team news was that there were no changes from the win at West Ham. So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Sema, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deeney and Deulofeu. But the hottest news as the team arrived was that Pereyra disembarked from the bus wearing a santa hat. He is a little bonkers.
The travelling Chelsea fans immediately endeared themselves to me with a first minute chant of “We’ve won it all.” At times like this my mind goes back to the mid-eighties when they used to stop the clock at Stamford Bridge 10 minutes before the end of the game so that the fans didn’t get on the backs of their struggling team. The visitors had the first chance of the game as Pedro exchanged passes with Willian before curling a shot wide of the far post. Watford’s first chance came from a howler by the Chelsea keeper, Arrizabalaga, who gave the ball away to Deulofeu, but the Spaniard tried a back heel that went to no one and the chance was gone. There was a nasty incident 10 minutes into the game, as Willian rounded Foster and hit the post, Kabasele slid in to try to cut out the shot and collided heavily with the post. He needed lengthy treatment and the stretcher was brought around, but he was able to get to his feet and return to the field. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long and he was soon replaced by Mariappa. Watford had a half chance as a cross from Femenía was headed down by Doucouré but the ball rolled through to the keeper. Then Doucouré and Deulofeu combined before the Frenchman hit an angled shot that was blocked.
There was an even better chance after Deeney did well to win the ball and release Pereyra who crossed for Doucouré who was in a great position, but his shot was disappointingly high and wide. The action was straight down the other end where Azpilicueta hit a low cross which flew across the front of the goal with no Chelsea player there to apply the finishing touch. Watford attacked again as Deulofeu intercepted a pass and broke forward before squaring for Deeney, whose shot was blocked. The visitors were being frustrated by some great defending as first Cathcart and then Capoue (twice) snuffed out chances with brilliant tackles. Towards the end of the half, Chelsea were forced to make a substitution replacing Pedro with Hudson-Odoi. We were then distracted by the sight of Kabasele being wheeled out on a stretcher wearing an oxygen mask. The Rookery rose to applaud him. I suspect that his team mates were as perturbed as we were as, almost immediately, Capoue played a poor pass to Doucouré, Kovačič intercepted and fed Hazard who advanced and rounded Foster to open the scoring. We were already in time added on at the end of the half, but there was still time for Watford to equalize. Doucouré broke into the box, but the keeper dived at his feet to concede a corner. The corner was taken short by Deulofeu, Holebas crossed and Pereyra volleyed brilliantly past Arrizabalaga. Hopefully the cheers for the goal would have brightened Kabasele up as he made his way next door to the hospital.
So we reached half time with honours even after a decent enough half of football, even if all the shots on target had come in injury time. My sister had kindly packed turkey sandwiches for us, which certainly hit the spot.
Watford were shouting for a penalty after 54 minutes as Luiz flattened Deulofeu in the box. Television pictures suggested that there was some wrestling between them, but you can’t help thinking that, had the same incident occurred in the Watford box, a penalty would have been awarded. Needless to say, the next passage of play saw Hazard breaking into the box, Foster had no need to come out as Cathcart had it covered, but he did and pushed Hazard over. There was no arguing with that one, it was an obvious penalty even from the opposite end of the ground, and Hazard made no mistake from the spot allowing Chelsea to regain the lead. Foster was also booked for the foul. It was very frustrating to be behind at this stage as the Hornets had dominated the start of the second half. Watford fought back and Doucouré tried to find Deulofeu in the box, but the keeper just got there first. Gracia made a second change half way through the half replacing Sema, who had a great game, with Quina. The visitors had a decent chance to increase their lead as Willian had the ball on the edge of the box but whipped his shot wide. Deulofeu then tried a shot from distance, but it was weak and easy for the keeper. A mistake from Holebas allowed Hazard to break and find Kanté who shot wide of the far post. There was a great chance for the Hornets to equalize as Doucouré played the ball in to Deeney at the near post, but Troy flicked his shot just over. With 10 minutes to go, each side made changes as Kovačič and Hudson-Odoi (who had been the first Chelsea substitute) made way for Barkley and Emerson, and Success replaced Deulofeu for the Hornets. Chelsea had a couple of late chances to increase their lead as, first, a corner came out to Jorginho who shot over the target. Then Willian hit a low shot that Foster pushed around the post. In time added on, Watford won a corner and Foster came up for it. As the ball bounced around the box, Foster tried an overhead kick, such a shame that didn’t go in, but it certainly made me smile. So the final whistle went on a narrow defeat for the Hornets.
Yet again, we were ruing missing our chances as we could easily have won a point in that game. But, on the positive side, we were reflecting on a game in which we had matched one of the best teams in the country. Watford no longer look like plucky underdogs in these games, but are playing with a similar quality to these household names. There were regrets regarding the two penalties. Watford’s would have been given on another day. Chelsea’s was an unnecessary challenge by Foster but, given how well he has done for us this season, it is hard to criticise.
So we reach the half way stage of the season in the top half of the table with over twice as many points as the team in 18th place, so allowing us to continue to look up rather than down.
But the best news came this morning with a tweet from Kabasele that announced that he didn’t think that there was anything broken and “Great gesture of the goal post who visited me at hospital.” I do love his sense of humour and it was wonderful that he let the fans know that he is better than might have been expected when we saw him taken out of the ground. I wish him a full and speedy recovery.