I suspect that I was one of very few people who bought tickets for this game as soon as they went on sale. My season ticket seat is a couple of seats away from my niece’s. Since I knew that the guys who sit between us don’t usually attend early League Cup games, I decided to buy their seats instead of mine. When my sister found out on Monday that she would be able to get leave from work to attend and was able to buy my seat (prime in the middle of the Rookery), it was clear that the attendance at this game would be rather low. That suspicion was confirmed when the West Herts was relatively empty pre-match and, after Don and Trond left early to go to the ground, I was Franny-no-mates at our usual table. For this reason, it was a surprise to arrive at the ground twenty minutes before kick-off to see a huge queue at the ticket office. Sadly, it seems that many fans were not aware that their tickets would not be uploaded to their Season Cards and so faced an irritating and unexpected queue to collect tickets that they thought they already had.
With a new head coach, there is always the question of whether he will make wholesale changes for the early cup games or use them to help the team to gel. We were given our answer when Mazzarri made nine changes from the Chelsea game with only Guedioura and Deeney keeping their places. The starting line-up was Pantilimon; Nyom, Hoban, Kabasele; Paredes, Guedioura, Watson, Doucouré, Anya; Deeney and Vydra. So a chance to see Troy and Matěj teaming up again and it was rather lovely to see Hoban back after so long out injured.
As we waited for kick-off, a lot of balls were flying in to the Rookery, one of which hit a little lad a couple of rows behind me. I heard applause and then saw Guedioura running up the aisle past us to make sure that the child was OK and give him a ball to take home. That may well have been the highlight of the evening.
The game started promisingly enough as Anya cut the ball back to Deeney whose snap shot was saved. At the other end our new defender, Kabasele, made a good start to his debut with a great tackle on Osadebe. My notes relating to the next twenty minutes tell me that we were making a lot of deep crosses while none of our players were anywhere near the far post. Watford had a decent chance on the half hour as a shot from Anya was parried and Doucouré hit the rebound from the edge of the area just wide. Guedioura was the next to threaten the Gillingham goal but, again, shot wide from distance. Gillingham’s first notable chance came just before half-time but Emmanuel-Thomas fired well wide of the target, so we reached half time goalless. Watford had been the better side with the majority of the possession, but had rarely tested Nelson in the Gillingham goal.
As we started the second half, I had high hopes that we would finally convert our dominance to goals and we started promisingly. Watson had the first goal attempt of the second period with a shot that flew just over the bar. Then Hoban met a Paredes cross with a header that was well over the target. The first substitution came ten minutes into the half as Ighalo replaced Guedioura. It was an attacking substitution that paid off almost immediately as Deeney chipped a ball over the defence and Ighalo turned it in from close range. The Hornets should have been two up as Deeney and Vydra combined to find Ighalo in space but his shot was blocked. That was the Czech’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Capoue. I felt sorry for Matěj, he had worked hard and was obviously keen to impress. It had been interesting to see Deeney and Vydra together again. There were lots of little flicks between them, but they didn’t come to anything and you couldn’t help thinking that Troy was doing his best to help his strike partner to get the goal that he so desperately wanted. There was very warm applause for Matěj as he left the field which he reciprocated. Watford should have had a second goal as a header from Hoban was blocked on the line before an attempt at a clearance by a Gillingham defender hit the bar.
At the other end, a stupid tackle by Nyom on a player who was going nowhere led to a penalty award. The Rookery started chanting Pantilimon’s name, but he didn’t need to get involved as Dack put the ball into Row Z. Deeney could have turned the knife with a header from a Paredes cross, but Nelson was equal to it. Watford were to rue not making the most of their chances as, with eight minutes to go, Byrne hit a shot from distance into the far corner of Pantilimon’s goal. Watford had a couple of late chances to win the game but Doucouré skyed his shot and then Hoban fired just wide, although the flag was already up for offside. So Watford had been punished again for dropping deep to preserve a narrow lead and we were to be treated to extra time.
In the first minute of extra time Ighalo should have regained the lead for the Hornets, but his shot was just wide of the near post. Mazzarri’s second substitution saw Zúñiga replacing Anya and the Colombian could have broken the deadlock but shot just wide. Against the run of play, it was the visitors who took the lead as the Watford defence failed to deal with a cross, allowing Dack to sneak in to shoot. Pantilimon appeared to grab the ball but only succeeded in taking it over the line. This was missed by the linesman but the referee was notified due to the goal line technology and indicated a goal.
Watford tried to strike back in the second period of extra time but it wasn’t to be our night as Hoban had another effort cleared off the line and goal machine, Capoue, hit a decent chance high and wide, much to the disappointment of my niece who is a big fan but has yet to see him score. The final whistle went to a loud chorus of boos.
What is it with Watford and the early rounds of the League Cup? This is the latest in a long line of dreadful performances. These games should be an opportunity for fringe players to make a claim for a place but only Kabasele and Hoban really impressed. Certainly, those who have expressed concern regarding some recent mistakes from Gomes will have derived no comfort from Pantilimon’s showing. Deeney hasn’t looked himself in the early games this season, although he rarely does when things aren’t going his way. You can’t help but think that this would have been a good game in which to rest him and give Sinclair a chance to impress.
So we are out of the cup to a League One side and anticipating a visit from Arsenal. The international break can’t come quickly enough.