Tag Archives: Virgil van Dijk

Thrashing the Would-be Invincibles

Sarr about to escape the attentions of the Liverpool defence

As always when we have a late kick-off, my pre-match routine was completely messed up.  Due to the late finish time of the game and an appointment in Hertfordshire on Sunday, I had decided to stay over in Watford so I drove over and arrived at about 2:40.  Despite knowing that the kick-off was at 5:30, this seemed to be cutting it a bit fine in the event that the kick-off time had been changed back at short notice (I know!!)  But the lack of people in Watford shirts on the Rickmansworth Road convinced me that I hadn’t got kick-off time wrong.  I checked in to the hotel before walking to the West Herts and managed to get caught in a nasty hailstorm on the way, so was very glad to arrive in the warm and find the usual suspects at ‘our’ table.  I was greeted by a very apologetic Glenn, who had promised pork scratchings but arrived at the butcher to find that they only had scraps left.  He needn’t have worried as there was just enough and they were gorgeous, although it gave us another excuse to complain about Sky Sports.

We spent the afternoon cheering on the opponents of the teams around us and could have done without West Ham beating Southampton.  Liverpool came into this game looking to make it a record 19 Premier League wins in a row and to continue their unbeaten run in the league this season.  A couple of very optimistic Watford fans said that they fancied us to get something from the game but, based on our recent form, I couldn’t see us getting anything other than soundly beaten.  Richard was one who thought that we might get the win, but when he left early “to soak up the atmosphere”, we said our goodbyes as he wouldn’t be back in the West Herts after the game.  Knowing that he never comes back after defeats made his positive prediction appear rather shallow.

Masina and Hughes

Team news was that Pearson had made two changes, and what very welcome changes they were, as Femenía and Sarr came in for Dawson and Pereyra.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

The game kicked off and the first chance fell to the Hornets as Deulofeu cut inside and shot wide of the near post.  The home side also created the next chance of note as Doucouré fed Deulofeu, but the shot was just over the bar.  The same players combined again soon after, this time Deulofeu played the ball back to Doucouré, whose shot was blocked by van Dijk for a corner that came to nothing.  Despite having a lot of the play, Liverpool’s first chance didn’t come until the 20th minute when Oxlade-Chamberlain chipped the ball over to Salah in the box, he was in a great position but could only find the side netting.  Just after the half hour mark, Deulofeu went down under a challenge from van Dijk.  It looked pretty innocuous at first and I had just shouted “Get up, Geri” when I saw the referee waving to the bench for medical treatment.  It was soon obvious that the injury was bad and, after treatment, he was stretchered off.  This was so sad for the lad, and for us, as he had been having a superb game.  He left the field to the sound of his name being sung from the home stands and was replaced by Pereyra.

Deeney and Lovren in the customary pose as Doucoure breaks through

Deeney could have been in trouble after a robust challenge on Alexander-Arnold.  Troy went over and helped the lad to his feet and the referee was happy that no action needed to be taken, but the Watford captain may have been a bit lucky there.  The visitors created a half chance as a cross reached Mané, but his body position was wrong and the ball bounced off his head.  As it happened, his position on the field was wrong too as the offside flag was up.  Sarr created a much better chance trying a shot from the edge of the area that was over the target.  In time added on, there was the joy of a superb tackle from Masina on Alexander-Arnold.  Tackles don’t get as much coverage as (even poor) goal attempts, but sometimes they are things of beauty and this was one of those.  Watford could have taken the lead in time added on at the end of the half when, from a free kick, Alisson made a mistake allowing Deeney in, but the Liverpool keeper recovered to make a save and Deeney could only knock the follow-up wide.

So, we reached half time with the game goalless.  Liverpool had most of the possession, but the Hornets had created all of the noteworthy chances.  It had been an impressive performance but, as so often this season, I just worried that we would regret being so wasteful in front of goal.

Etienne Capoue

The half time guest was Heiðar Helguson who was a man of few words but seeing some highlights of his time with us was just a joy.  As would be expected, he was given a tremendous reception and appeared to appreciate it.

The Hornets started the second half as they had finished the first as Pereyra played a lovely ball through to Sarr whose shot was kept out by a one-handed save from Alisson.  At the other end, there was a bit of pinball in the Watford box, but Foster was finally able to gather the ball.  The Hornets took the lead on the 53rd minute as, from a Masina throw, the ball reached Doucouré who played the ball back to Sarr who finished from close range sparking mad celebrations in the home stand.  I have to admit that, after last week, my celebration was slightly delayed while I assured myself that VAR wouldn’t intervene.  I normally have a chance to grab some sort of photo of the players celebrating.  On this occasion, we had only just stopped hugging each other as Sarr reached the centre circle for the restart.  Lovely as the goal was, it felt far too early in the game to have any confidence in the lead, Liverpool had plenty of time to strike back.

Celebrating the third goal

The Hornets had a decent chance to grab a second soon after when Deeney got his head to a Hughes free kick, but his effort was wide of the target.  Watford did not have long to rue that miss as Hughes played a lovely back heel down the line to Deeney, he released Sarr who bore down on goal before lifting the ball over Alisson.  It was another lovely goal and the Liverpool players looked rather shocked.  I did get a photo of the celebration for this one, but my hands were shaking so much that it is just a yellow blur.  Klopp made a change before the restart bringing Lallana on for Wijnaldum.  The visitors had a chance to hit back almost immediately with a free kick in a dangerous position, but the delivery from Alexander-Arnold was woeful and flew well wide of the near post.  Hughes had a chance to make it three for the Hornets, but his shot hit Sarr and was cleared.  Klopp made a second change replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain with Origi.  Liverpool had a great chance to pull a goal back when a ball into the Watford box was headed clear to Lallana who hit it well, but his effort rebounded off the outside of the far post.  Sarr should have grabbed a hat-trick when he got on the end of a cross from Masina, but he tried to hit a volley and ended up mishitting the shot which flew wide of the near post.

More players join the celebration of the third goal

The third goal came from a Liverpool mistake as Sarr intercepted a backpass from Alexander-Arnold, he coolly held the ball up before playing a gorgeous pass to Deeney who lofted a beautiful shot into the empty net.  It was a fantastic goal and the celebrations were suitably manic.  Thankfully, this time I got some lovely shots of the players celebrating.  But, when my brain engaged again, all I could think was “Tranmere”.  As those around me were singing rather rude things about “invincibles” I was muttering that there was just under 20 minutes to go so it was far too early to be celebrating.  With 10 minutes remaining, Klopp made his final substitution replacing Firmino with Minamino.  Meanwhile I was trying to keep calm, but my heart was racing.  Sarr then had a superb chance to score a fourth goal as he received a lovely through ball from Capoue but the shot was just wide of the target.  That was his last action of the game as Pearson replaced him with Pussetto.  I have to say that I was a little disappointed that he was denied the chance to get a hat-trick, but it was a sensible decision given the lack of game time that he has had of late.  With 5 minutes to go the Rookery was rocking with a chant of “Can we play you every week,” while I was still shouting “too early”.  Liverpool had a chance to pull one back as Salah crossed, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  Then van Dijk tried his luck from distance, but his effort was well over the bar.  Pearson made his second substitution on 89 minutes replacing Doucouré with Chalobah.  All eyes were on the fourth official as he held up the board indicating that there were 4 minutes of added time.  Those four minutes were mostly played in Watford’s half, but every poor pass from the visitors and the odd catch from Foster was loudly cheered.  It must have been the 93rd minute when I finally believed that we would win the game.  The final whistle went to joyous scenes in the home stands.

Masina prepares for a throw-in

After the celebratory hugs, we all just stood looking incredulously at each other.  I don’t think any of us could believe what we had just witnessed.  Michael in the row in front suggested that was possibly the best game we have ever played.  It was certainly up there with the best.  As we gathered in the concourse, Rose got a message from Amelia (her season ticket holding daughter who was unable to make the game) saying that last time we beat Liverpool 3-0 I had cried, and she hoped that we were all crying with joy.  We assured her that we had been.  The atmosphere in the concourse was a little muted.  Usually after games like this the concourse is noisy as songs are being belted out.  On this occasion, I think everyone was a little stunned.

We emerged onto Occupation Road to find a huge crowd, a sign that nobody had left early.  I left my family at the school car park and bumped into a West Herts regular with whom I waxed lyrical about the performance.  As I entered the bar the first person that I saw was Richard.  My enquiry as to what he was doing there was met with a broad smile and the offer of a drink.  The post-match analysis was joyous.  We all agreed that every one of our players had been magnificent.  The stats showed that Liverpool had enjoyed 71% of the possession, but the Watford defence had restricted them to only a single shot on target.  Deeney, Deulofeu and Pereyra had all been disappointing at Old Trafford, but had been superb in this game with even Pereyra working his socks off.  The performance of Femenía showed how much we had missed him.  What was really impressive was that, after two months out, he looked as though he had never been away.  Similarly with Sarr, who frightened the life out of the Liverpool defence, the only disappointment had been that he didn’t get his hat trick.  The midfield three of Hughes, Capoue and Doucouré had worked tirelessly and been incredibly solid.  Sometimes it is the silly things that give you immense pleasure and one of the memories that I will take from this game involved Capoue.  I love him as a player, but he can blow hot and cold.  Watching him when he is enjoying himself is utterly joyous and there was a point in the game when he sprinted from one side of the pitch to the other and back again, frustrating the Liverpool midfield and it was one of those moments that has me clapping my hands in glee.

Confirmation that it really happened

At the end of the day, we had beaten the team who are running away with the League.  Their recent performances have not been perfect, but they have continued to grind out results and were proving very hard to beat.  The fact that this Watford team not only beat them but did so convincingly was just amazing.  Although there is still a part of me waiting to wake up to find out that we have lost 6-0.

I was back in the hotel just in time to see the highlights on Match of the Day.  Any fears that the pundits would focus on how poor Liverpool had been were dispelled as they gave our lads the credit they deserved for their performance.  I was also gratified to get a message from a Scouse friend who congratulated us on a brilliant performance commenting that we were impressive all though the team.

Obviously, one win doesn’t keep you in the division, but we went on a great run after our impressive performance at Anfield.  I can only hope that this even more impressive performance at Vicarage Road gives the lads the confidence that they need to start playing with the quality that they know they have and getting the results that they deserve.

What a difference a week makes.  I love football again.

 

A Surprisingly Fun Visit to Liverpool

Nigel Pearson and Craig Shakespeare in the Watford dug-out

This was to be Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge, and I have to say that I had enjoyed reading social media during the week.  Pearson is clearly well liked by his colleagues and former players and the comments from Leicester fans showed that he is held in very high esteem in those parts.  As if that wasn’t enough, I must admit to cheering when Craig Shakespeare was confirmed as Assistant Head Coach.

As one of my oldest and dearest friends lives on Merseyside, I travelled up on Friday afternoon to spend the evening with them.  But the early kick-off meant an early start from theirs and it did not bode well for the afternoon when I found myself caught in a hailstorm on the way to the station to catch the train into the city.

Despite information indicating that the pub wouldn’t be open until 11, the doors had opened before my arrival and there were already some familiar faces inside.  Our party gathered, but a delayed flight from Amsterdam and delayed trains at Milton Keynes meant that two of our usual group were not going to make kick-off.  After a swift pint or two, we headed to the ground.

Mapps, Sarr, Doucoure (and Mane) in the sleet

The buses to Anfield had returned to the stop opposite Doctor Duncan’s and it was noted that there had been long queues there since about 10:30.  We left the pub at a reasonable time but the length of the queue meant that, by the time we reached the front, the steward was telling us that we were on the last bus and it was already leaving later than planned (12:10).  Having estimated that the bus would take 20 minutes to get to Anfield, I was getting rather tense at the late departure and Pete, sitting next to me, was becoming very apologetic about having had a second pint.

Team news for Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge was that he had made two changes from the Palace game with Mariappa and Hughes coming in for Masina and Pereyra, who were both out with injuries.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Doucouré; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney.  There had been rumours in the pub that, due to the two midweek games that Liverpool were facing, they would play a much weakened team, possibly packed with youth players.  When the Liverpool team came through, that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I started to feel very nervous indeed.

The bus arrived at the ground with 10 minutes to spare and, to my great relief, I found myself in the stand just as the game kicked off.

Ben Foster launches a free kick

Our seats were located quite high up in a corner of the ground.  The sun was very low over the opposite stand and, with a lot of tall people in front of me, I could see little of what was going on and absolutely nothing at our end of the ground.  So, I was aware that there had been some early possession from the home side, but hadn’t seen any action (or heard any reaction from the crowd) that suggested anything resembling a goal chance.  On 6 minutes, Sarr broke forward and played a lovely ball across the Liverpool box, but nobody was there to turn the ball in.  Quite early on there was a chant from around us of “How sh*t must you be, it’s only 0-0.”  My heart sank until I heard someone shout that it was a terrible song and we should be positive.  Another voice spoke up in support of that view and my faith in our travelling support was restored.  Goal chances were few and far between until a little flurry at the midpoint of the half.  First for the home side when Henderson broke into the box and shot over the bar.  Then Hughes won the ball in the midfield, advanced and shot just wide of the target.  The first caution of the game went to Hughes who was booked for a foul on Henderson.  There was little excitement on the pitch but, over the tannoy, we were told to ‘stand by for Operation Anfield exercise’ and the tension in the air was palpable.  But the exercise came and went and we were none the wiser.

Hughes and Deulofeu line up a free kick as Kiko looks on

The home side had a shout for a penalty when Mané found Salah in the box and the Egyptian took a tumble, but the referee waved play on.  Watford then had a half chance when Deeney headed the ball down to Doucouré, but Van Dijk was on hand to make the clearance.  The home side had a chance from a corner, but Alexander-Arnold’s delivery was easily claimed by Foster.  With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Watford should have taken the lead as Capoue played the ball back for Doucouré who miskicked horribly so failed to get a shot in when it looked easier to score.  To add insult to injury, the corner from Deulofeu was poor which allowed Mané to claim the ball and escape upfield before finding Salah whose shot curled past Foster.  At this point, bizarrely, there was a mass exodus from the home stand to our right.  There were still 8 minutes to go to half-time, but the lure of the concessions clearly trumped watching the match.  Watford had a gilt-edged chance to break back before half time when a shot from Deulofeu was saved by Allison, but he pushed it straight to Sarr in the box.  Unfortunately, the youngster’s mishit was even worse than Doucoure’s.  Henderson was the next to go into the referee’s book after pulling Deulofeu back.  Liverpool had a great chance to grab a second when Mané broke into the box, but Kabasele made a superb save to stop him.  So, the half finished with the Hornets a goal down, but it has to be said that we were very unlucky to be behind.

Andre Gray somewhat outnumbered

Watford had the first chance of the second half as Sarr broke into the Liverpool box, but Allison was able to make the save.  At the other end a shot from Salah was blocked by Kabasele.  Liverpool thought they had scored a second goal when Mané headed home, but the VAR decision was that the goal would not stand.  There was no explanation in the ground of why the goal had been disallowed, but it seemed the forward was deemed to be offside.  Deulofeu had a great chance to draw the Hornets level when he found himself with only Allison to beat, but the keeper was able to block the shot.  Sarr had been tormenting the opposition all afternoon and the next player to fall victim was Milner who was booked for tripping him up.   Liverpool were forced to make a substitution due to an injury to Wijnaldum who was replaced by Robertson.  The Hornets had a great chance to draw level as Capoue played a lovely ball over the top for Deeney, but the Watford captain could not apply the finishing touch.  Then Sarr broke into the area and was sent tumbling by Van Dijk, but the referee was unimpressed.  At the other end, Firmino hit a low shot, but Foster was down to make the save.  Another chance came and went for the home side as Salah broke into the box, but Kabasele was in close attendance and able to turn the ball back to Foster.  Then Salah found Firmino in the box, but it came to nothing as Foster was out to make the save.  With 20 minutes to go, Klopp made a second substitution replacing Shaqiri with Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The wonderful Hughes lines up a free kick

The home side threatened again when a cross found Firmino, but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Foster.  Pearson then made his first substitution replacing Deeney with Gray.  The Watford defence were in action again as a cross from Chamberlain was repelled by the head of Mariappa.  At the other end, another promising move came to nothing when Gray tried to release Sarr, but the touch was heavy and Gomez was able to clear.  A decent pass from Gray went begging as Doucouré hadn’t read the ball, but the Liverpool defence were asleep and, in panic, Van Dijk almost turned the ball into his own net but, instead, it went out for a corner.  On this occasion, Deulofeu’s delivery was decent but he could only hit the post.  Watford were fighting to get back on terms and should have done better when a free kick from Hughes was cleared to Sarr, but the shot was well wide of the target.  Then Sarr played the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was dreadful and cleared the bar.  That was Abdoulaye’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Quina.  At the same time Origi came on for Firmino for the home side.  The Liverpool fans were heading for the exits, so a good number of them will have missed the second goal and it was a disappointing one to concede as the Hornets failed to clear a ball into the box and Salah flicked home.  There was a final chance for Liverpool to extend their lead as Mané broke into the box, but he shot straight at Foster.

The magnificent Christian Kabasele

The final whistle went to cheers from all sides of the ground.  While the travelling Hornets enthusiastically applauded the players, I was very pleased to see Pearson telling his players to go over and applaud the fans.

It is strange to feel so positive after a defeat, but the performance had been very encouraging and we felt very unlucky to have lost.  Given the relative positions of the two teams at each end of the table, this game was much closer than it should have been and, but for the terrible finishing from the Hornets, this could have been an upset.

Sarr was a joy to watch.  He is now showing us why Gino Pozzo paid a club record fee for him.  The Liverpool defence were clearly scared of him as evidenced by the balls being thumped into the stands.  Hughes and Kabasele were also magnificent, their reputations are growing with each game.

The game coincided with a gig from one of my favourite artists, Ian Prowse, who, with his band Amsterdam, was playing his traditional Christmas gig in his hometown.  A number of us had bought tickets in the hope that this would give us some enjoyment from the day.  The early kick-off meant that we had a long time to kill between the game and the gig and this was spent on a crawl of some of the most attractive pubs in Liverpool.  During this, Mike continued to wear his Watford top and was approached by many locals (reds, blues and whites), all of whom congratulated us on our performance, with the Liverpool fans saying how much we had scared them.  It is always good to hear such a positive reaction from opposition fans.  Despite being bottom of the table, the hope has returned.

P.S.  The gig was magnificent and Ian Prowse now has a number of new fans among the travelling Hornets.

 

No Penalty, No Points, But No Shame

Meeting Javi

My Journey to the game was rather more eventful than I was expecting as an incident further up the line meant that my train into London stopped at Feltham.  As there were buses heading to Hatton Cross, that seemed the best bet and a bus and four different tube trains later I arrived in Watford.  It is a testament to how early I leave for games that I was still in the West Herts by 12:30.

Talk before the game was mostly about the Fans’ Forum that had taken place during the week.  It had been a superb event.  It started with a presentation by Spencer Field, Global Strategy and Partnerships Director(!), about the efforts they were making to bring Watford to a global audience, one of which will entail a change to the badge.  This was greeted with some dismay although I assume those that thought it was a good idea remained quiet.  Certainly there were no questions about it later in the evening.  Then the players were up, in the persons of Daryl Janmaat and Ben Foster who were good value, although Ben was certainly the star of the show.  He is a very funny man and clearly loves Watford.  He waxed lyrical about the football that we have been playing (comparing and contrasting to playing for Tony Pulis) and revealed that his favourite player is Deulofeu, who he hates facing in training.  He also thinks Dahlberg will be a star.  The last section of the evening featured Javi Gracia and Scott Duxbury.  Scott was able to announce that Peñaranda now has a work permit and that Javi was about to sign a new contract.  Javi was as lovely as he seems in his interviews.  It was all very positive and reminded me why I love being a Watford fan.

Liverpool fans protesting Scudamore’s payout

On the way along Vicarage Road to the game, I stopped off to buy a copy of the Watford Treasury from Olly Wicken, who had written an exclusive episode of Hornet Heaven for the supplement.  A wonderful addition to a publication that was already full of fascinating stuff.  Well worth a fiver of anyone’s money.

As I took my seat in the Rookery, I couldn’t help noticing how many people with season tickets were asking the stewards the way to their seats.  That didn’t happen when we played Huddersfield.  Thankfully, there were few strangers around us and those that were there were wearing Watford scarves.

Team news was that Gracia had made three changes from the Southampton game bringing Deeney, Masina and Capoue in for Success, Chalobah and Holebas.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Masina; Hughes, Doucoure, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Deeney.

Prior to kick-off there was a superb set of banners in the away end protesting Scudamore’s golden handshake.  Well done to the Liverpool fans for that.

Hughes takes a free kick

Watford started the game brilliantly and I was on my feet celebrating in the second minute as Deulofeu finished past Alisson.  Sadly, the celebrations were cut short by the linesman’s flag.  The Spaniard had another chance soon after, but this time the ball was cleared before he could shoot.  On 18 minutes, Watford won a corner.  As I had my camera focussed on the box waiting for the ball in, I missed the short corner, which was greeted with groans from those around me as they bemoaned a wasted opportunity.  Liverpool’s first real chance came soon after, but Foster got his fingertips to Shaqiri’s cross preventing it from reaching Salah.  The Egyptian threatened again as he ran onto a forward ball, but Ben Foster played sweeper coming out to intercept and launch the ball back upfield.  A dangerous free-kick from Shaqiri deserved more than a mishit from Wijnaldum allowing Foster to make an easy save.  Then a mistake allowed Firmino to break into the Watford box but Foster came to the rescue again, dropping to make the save.  At the other end, the Hornets had a chance to take the lead as a lovely shot from Pereyra was turned wide by Alisson.  Then Mané threatened on the break, but was stopped by a great tackle from Cathcart.  The Liverpool man had another chance with an overhead kick that Foster pushed wide.  The resulting corner was met by the head of Salah but, again, Foster was equal to it and the half time whistle went with the game goalless.

Mariappa on the ball

It had been a decent half with few chances.  Apart from the first 15 minutes, Liverpool had all of the possession, but a decent defensive display and some brave keeping from Foster had stopped them making the breakthrough.

The first attack of the second half came from the visitors as Mané’s shot hit the near post, but the flag was up anyway.  Watford had a strong appeal for a penalty when Hughes was tripped in the box, but the referee was not interested.  The first substitution was made just before the hour mark as Deulofeu was replaced by Success and, as has become his habit, showed his dismay when he reached the dugout.  The first booking of the game came as Henderson was cautioned for puling Success to the ground as he tried to escape.  A Watford attack was stopped by a rather bizarre offside decision against Deeney.  The visitors immediately broke down the other end and Mané crossed for Salah whose shot appeared to go through Foster.  A great shame after the keeper’s great work so far on the afternoon.   Watford tried to break back but a cross from Femenía was headed clear by van Dijk before it reached Deeney.  Then a cross into the Liverpool box was cleared only as far as Capoue whose shot cleared the bar.

Masina and Pereyra prepare for a free kick

Each side made a substitution as Shaqiri made way for Milner for the visitors, and Gray replaced Hughes for the Hornets.  If the first goal looked a bit scrappy, the second was excellent as Alexander-Arnold curled a free kick over the wall and into the top corner.  Liverpool played the last 8 minutes with 10 men as Henderson, who had just been warned after protesting a decision, decided to pull Capoue back.  It was a stupid foul and well worthy of the second yellow.  Success had a chance to pull one back for the Hornets with a shot across goal that only needed a touch, but nobody was there.  The second change for the visitors saw Fabinho replacing Salah.  The Hornets had a wonderful chance to reduce the deficit as a lovely passing move took the ball to Pereyra whose curling shot was just wide of the target.  The third Liverpool goal was just cruel. Foster did really well to stop a shot from Mané, but Firmino was on hand to nod in the rebound.  So the game finished as a 3-0 defeat for the Hornets.

So a disappointing afternoon all in all.  The first half display had been impressive as the defence kept Liverpool at bay.  The penalty that wasn’t given would have put a different perspective on the game, but Liverpool are a good side and were not to be denied, although it has to be said that the scoreline flattered them greatly.  As we say every time we play one of the top clubs, this one was a free hit and I was happy that we gave them a decent game.  After a couple of recent thrashings on our travels to Anfield, this was a very different performance and Liverpool really didn’t look that impressive, which can only be due to Watford playing well.  It is still a testament to the quality of our team that a defeat to one of the top two clubs in the country is viewed as a disappointment.

Another Heavy Defeat at Anfield

Pereyra attempting to keep warm as snow falls during the pre-match handshakes

An away game in Liverpool is always a good opportunity to catch up with one of my oldest and dearest friends and I have to say that I travelled to Liverpool acutely aware that the time spent with her and the planned visit to the Tate on Sunday were likely to be considerably more enjoyable than the 90 minutes at Anfield.

Saturday lunchtime we had a lovely walk through the woods from her town to the next railway station down the line.  The weather was lovely, a bright blue sky with the forecast snow falling as the wispiest of flakes.  As we waited for our trains she mentioned that she often visits a pub nearby which happens to be Jurgen Klopp’s local.  When I arrived in the City Centre, it was decked out in green, white and gold for St Patrick’s Day and everyone I passed seemed to be wearing a green shirt (as was I).  Given that the Six Nations clash between Ireland and England was taking place that afternoon, I felt sorry for any English rugby fans who may have been in town as they were horribly outnumbered.

When I had texted one of my party earlier in the day to reassure him that I still had his ticket and find out what time he would be in the pub, I was a little surprised when he indicated that it would be soon after midday.  When I arrived, a couple of hours after that, it was acknowledged that this was similar to arriving in the West Herts at 9:30 in the morning.  Even Don doesn’t get there that early.

Remembering the 96

We had a convivial and very tasty lunch (the pies are so good) and were soon joined by the Happy Valley Horns and the Liverpool contingent.  As we left the pub (with Ireland well on the way to a result that would give them the Grand Slam) some proper snow was falling.  As the buses for the stadium started lining up I was impressed to see them displaying a banner “Remembering the 96”.

When we arrived at the ground, the short walk from the bus to the away entrance was bitter as an icy wind accompanied the snow.  The security search was perfunctory and the lovely woman performing it said that I would soon be inside and could warm myself up jumping up and down as my team came out for the game.  I smiled and said that we’d make the most of that as it wasn’t likely that we would have any goals to celebrate.

Team news was just the one change in personnel from the Arsenal game, as Britos came in to replace Janmaat, and a change of formation to 5-4-1.  So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Femenía, Mariappa, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Pereyra, Doucouré, Capoue, Richarlison; Deeney.

Prior to kick-off there was a minute’s applause for John Molineux, a former Liverpool player who recently passed away.

Javi all wrapped up at Anfield

The game started disastrously for the Hornets as Salah broke into the box in the third minute and left Britos on the floor before beating Karnezis to open the scoring.   At least I’m told that was what happened, as I was too short to see the action in the box at our end which was obscured by my fellow fans standing in front of me.  The Egyptian could have increased the lead soon after as a through ball was played towards him, but Karnezis was out to save on the edge of the box.  At last a Watford attack as Femenía went on a run down the wing before crossing for Pereyra whose header looped wide of the target.  It went a bit quiet then for a while (thank goodness) the next action was a decent attack by the Hornets as Doucouré broke free of the Liverpool defence but decided against taking a shot so passed to Femenia and the home defence were able to clear.  Liverpool were forced into an early substitution due to an injury to Can, who was replaced by Milner.  The Hornets launched another attack as Deeney played the ball out to Pereyra who did brilliantly to beat his man and get into the box, he played the ball across the goal, but it was blocked.  At the other end, Watford’s day was summed up in a single move as Prödl made a brilliant tackle to dispossess Salah and then immediately lost the ball.  Watford’s best chance of the game so far came came as Pereyra crossed for Richarlison, whose header was on target but straight at Karius.  The next move seemed to start with a foul on the edge of the Liverpool box as Pereyra was pulled to the ground, but the referee was unmoved and the home side launched a counter attack allowing Salah to break free before playing a ball to Firmino who was stopped by a brilliant save from Karnezis.  Just when I thought that Watford could get to half time only one down, Liverpool scored the simplest of goals as Robertson played a lovely cross to an unmarked Salah who had the easiest of tap-ins (I am told, again my view of the shot was obscured).

Deeney and Pereyra looking horrified

The home side increased their lead early in the second half, while many were still in the concourse enjoying their half time refreshments.  I actually saw this one as it was at the other end of the ground, or I thought I did and was under the impression that it marked Salah’s hat trick, but he turned provider on this occasion as his cross from a narrow angle was turned into the net by an audacious flick from Firmino.  Watford had a couple of decent chances to reduce the deficit.  First a shot from Holebas flew just wide of the near post.  Then Gomez was shown a yellow card for a foul on Richarlison, allowing Pereyra to step up and hit a lovely free kick that bounced off the top of the crossbar.  The Hornets attacked again as a lovely ball was played out to Holebas who whipped the cross in but Karius plucked the ball out of the air.  At the other end there were shouts for handball as Mariappa blocked a cross from Firmino, but the referee saw no infringement.  Pereyra did really well to battle past a couple of defenders before crossing for Richarlison, who was being challenged so was off balance and could only manage a weak header that was easily blocked.  There was a rash of substitutions midway through the second half as, first, Hughes replaced Richarlison, then Okaka replaced Deeney to much muttering behind me.  “We’re three goals down and he takes off a striker”.  I couldn’t help thinking that going for it would be reckless at this stage when all we were playing for was goal difference.

Gathering for a Watford corner

For the home side Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Wijnaldum.  The young substitute was the next to test Karnezis, but it was an easy save for the Watford keeper.  Karnezis was less successful a couple of minutes later as Salah got the ball in the box and, despite there being a number of defenders in his way, he tricked them all and finished for his hat-trick and Liverpool’s fourth.  Watford hadn’t given up and Okaka broke into the Liverpool box, but with less success as his shot was blocked.  The final substitution for each side saw Ings replacing Firmino and Janmaat on for Britos, who had had a torrid time of it against Salah so was likely happy to be relieved of his duties.  Ings almost scored with his first attempt, but Karnezis made a great save, stretching and managing to get a hand to the shot to keep it out.  But Liverpool were not to be denied their fifth goal as Salah set up Ings whose shot was blocked so the ball rebounded to the Egyptian to score his fourth goal of the evening.  Salah had one more chance, and my heart sank as I saw him bearing down on the Watford goal, but Karnezis was able to get in the way and block the attempt.  As the fourth official held up the board indicating only 2 minutes of added time, Pete observed that it must have been a sympathy decision.  There was a rare moment to make me smile as the ball ended up in one of the stands and Mane leant over the hoardings to retrieve it while Prödl held his legs.  Watford had one last chance to score a consolation goal as Femenía swung a cross in, but Matip was on hand to clear and the whistle went on another heavy defeat for the Hornets at Anfield.

Holebas and Richarlison lining up a free kick with Britos contemplating joining them

As we left the stadium, I was very grateful to see that the snow had stopped falling so I had a very pleasant walk back to Sandhills station before taking a seat on a sparsely occupied train back to my friend’s house on the coast.

I arrived back to a sympathetic welcome, although I couldn’t say that I was either cold or wet, just rather miserable about the result of the game.  But it was hardly an unexpected outcome and I found myself baffled about the constant complaints that I heard from the people behind me.  I had observed early in the game that Liverpool were simply better than us, but that didn’t seem to register.  Some fans seem unable to view a game from that perspective so spend ninety minutes berating their players for losing to a team playing some brilliant football.

There were some positives for the Hornets.  Karnezis, despite letting in five goals, put on a decent show.  But my highlight was a decent performance from Pereyra, who put together some lovely moves which cheered me up greatly on a day when there were few moments of joy.  He seems to shine against more talented opposition as he clearly feels that he is less likely to be clattered.

But, in the end, it was the Salah show.  He is an exceptional footballer and sometimes you have to just appreciate that and move on.  This game was never one that we targeted to gain points, so we should all recharge our batteries over the international break and return, refreshed, for the visit of Bournemouth.

 

Starting the Season with a Well Won Point

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Last Thursday, I was invited to an evening at the club at which we were charged with tasting the catering offerings for the new season (who ate all the pies?).  We were told that there will be a number of freshly cooked options available including pies, chicken curry and fish and chips.  The only vegetarian option is a cheese and potato pie (veggie food doesn’t sell, apparently) and my question about the continuing availability of chicken wraps and ham baps indicated how often I buy food inside the ground as they haven’t been available for at least a season.  The tasting only included pies and hot dogs and I must say that the boeuf bourguignon pie was excellent, lots of chunks of beef and a very nice pastry crust.  I am also told that the Hornets Ale (a Carlsberg product) was rather good.

Back to the events of Saturday.  On our last visit to Southampton (over which we should draw a veil) our party met at a lovely pub which fell down by taking forever to serve the food on a weekday evening.  We decided to give them another chance and they delivered.  The beer was great, the food was good and was served promptly (and my egg and bacon roll cost less than it would have done from the van outside the ground), the staff were lovely and the company was exceptional.  I was a little concerned when young Matt decided to join us, as his occasional attendance in recent times has inevitably resulted in defeat.  But our late substitute, Adam, told us that he had never seen us lose at Southampton, so that made me feel a lot better about our prospects.

An animated Mazzarri in the dugout

An animated Mazzarri in the dugout

On arrival at the ground, there was a huge queue at the turnstiles, but it moved very quickly and, as we snaked around, we passed friends, so paused for hugs and kisses with some and smiles and greetings with many.  Our catching up was clearly bothering the stewards who told us to move along.  It had been announced during the week that the tickets were being subsidised, so that all would cost £20 (following the FSF Twenty’s Plenty campaign).  Despite the sponsorship already being printed on the tickets, we were charged full price at the time of sale and the rebate was applied by way of envelopes being handed out at the turnstiles.  Call me churlish, but I would have been more impressed if they had just refunded to our credit card accounts as the rebate stunt proved to be an environmental mess as large numbers of envelopes were discarded just inside the turnstiles.  In addition to that, some fans were given the wrong sum, which was fine if you were given a tenner when you had bought a concession ticket, but not so good the other way around.

As we took our place low down in the stand, you couldn’t help but contrast the blazing sun to the torrential rain that we experienced on our last visit.

Celebrating our first goal of the season

Celebrating our first goal of the season

Walter Mazzarri’s first team selection was eagerly awaited and contained a couple of surprises with Amrabat and Behrami, who hadn’t seen a lot of game time in pre-season, being preferred to Anya and Suárez/Watson.  The starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Prödl, Britos; Amrabat, Capoue, Behrami, Guedioura, Holebas; Deeney and Ighalo.

There was a nervous moment for the Hornets early in the game as Gomes did well to keep out a free kick from Tadić, only for Britos to direct a follow-up goalwards.  Thankfully Gomes was able to keep that out as well.  Watford took the lead on 9 minutes through our newly discovered goal machine, Capoue.  It was a lovely goal as well.  A great cross from Amrabat was headed back by Deeney into the path of the onrushing Capoue who buried it past Forster.  The first goal of a new season always feels significant and it was great to see this one go to the Hornets.  Sadly our first goal of the season was greeted with the first smoke bomb, which I didn’t see but the fragrance is unmistakable.  There were few further chances until after the half hour when Long headed a Tadić cross just wide.  Soon after Holebas hit a cross-cum-shot that looked dangerous, but ended up on the roof of the net.  Redmond had a decent chance of an equalizer but he shot just wide.  As the home side threatened late in the half, there was some lovely defending as Prödl put in a great tackle and Cathcart was on hand to clear up.  Southampton had one last chance to equalize in the first half with a shot from Cédric that Gomes did well to push to safety.

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

At half time the mood among the travelling Hornets was good.  It had been a decent performance with a lovely goal and some solid defending.

There were no changes of personnel at the start of the second half.  Just before the hour mark, a good Watford move broke down allowing Southampton to counter attack finishing with a shot from Redmond that Gomes did very well to keep out.  This was followed by a couple of Southampton corners, the second of which was punched by Gomes but only as far as Redmond who volleyed home.  Watford could have struck back almost immediately as a back pass was played short to Forster, Deeney ran on but the keeper managed to be first to the ball.  The home side also had a chance to increase the lead as Yoshida headed just over.

Mazzarri made a couple of substitutions with Watson coming on for Behrami and Zúñiga making his debut replacing Guedioura.  The Colombian is a wing back but, on this occasion, was used in the midfield.  With 15 minutes to go, an attempted escape by Long was stopped when Watson dragged him to the ground.  There was no surprise when the red card was shown and the Hornets faced a challenging end to the game.  From that point on, it was mostly one way traffic with Watford mounting a rearguard action.  When Watson was dismissed, it was commented that it ended Vydra’s hopes of any game time and, sure enough, Mazzarri’s final substitution saw Ighalo replaced with Anya.  Into the last five minutes and it appeared that Southampton had taken all three points as Redmond again beat Gomes, but the goal was ruled out for what I was reliably informed was the first offside of the game.

Thanking the travelling Hornets

Thanking the travelling Hornets

At the final whistle, a number of the Watford players collapsed to the floor and, I must admit, that I wanted to follow suit as I had been exhausted watching that second half from the stands.  The players came over to thank the travelling fans.  They were not joined by Mazzarri, but that is not meant as criticism as he did give the crowd an appreciative wave before disappearing down the tunnel.  He is rather animated in the dugout and could bring us some entertainment on that score this season.

At the end of the game most Watford fans were happy with the point and impressed that we’d managed to hold out with ten men.  The positives in the game were that we defended well and the goal was a thing of beauty.  The negative for me was the irritation that I felt in the second half every time we played a ball forward in hope rather than expectation that inevitably was cleared causing us to have to defend again.  We have a very difficult few games coming up, so the Watford faithful will have to be patient as any points during this period will be a bonus.  Still, it is always good to start the season with a point and Matt is now welcome to come to future games, so it’s all good.

 

A Game Best Forgotten

The Southampton crest on the footbridge to the ground

The Southampton crest on the footbridge to the ground

This game was going to be a different experience from the start as Toddy and I had been invited as guests of Ross Wilson, who is currently the Director of Scouting and Recruitment at Southampton, having started his career in England with Watford. Due to poor planning and miscommunication on my part, we didn’t get to the ground until about 10 minutes before kick-off, so missed the pre-match jolly. When we took our seats in the corporate section on the half way line, I had to admire the fantastic view, but I was missing being in the middle of the band of away supporters who were packed in the corner. Although my first thought on seeing the away fans was that there wasn’t a lot of yellow on show. The rain had been torrential on the way to the ground, so raincoats were obscuring the brightly coloured replica shirts.

Team news was that Flores had made 4 changes from the cup game, which translated to only one change from our last league game with Prödl, who had been excellent on Saturday, coming in for Cathcart, who would miss a league start for the first time this season. The starting line-up was Gomes, Holebas, Prödl, Britos, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Jurado, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.

The Ted Bates statue

The Ted Bates statue

The first chance of the game fell to the home side as Capoue lost out to Clasie whose cross was blocked by Britos, but fell to Romeu who shot high and wide. The Saints took the lead on 16 minutes as a cross from Targett was met with a glancing header from Long which directed the ball past Gomes. It was not a good start and it never really looked like getting any better. There was a brief reaction as Jurado broke forward before finding Nyom who crossed towards Deeney, but van Dijk took the ball off Troy’s head. The home side should have been two up on 20 minutes as Mané unleashed a shot that Gomes pushed wide. From the corner, Gomes punched the ball only as far as Targett, whose shot from the edge of the area was blocked. A botched attempt by Nyom to win a goal kick saw the ball rebound into the area allowing Long to shoot from a tight angle. Thankfully Gomes was able to block the shot before Holebas cleared. There was a break in play as Holebas went down after a foul by Cédric, who was booked. You could see from the player’s reaction that he was clearly hurt, but the home fans thought it was appropriate to boo Holebas as he limped off and then booed every subsequent touch. There was a brief moment of hope for the Watford fans as Capoue released Ighalo, it looked promising as Odion executed a couple of his trademark scoops, but his shot was blocked for a corner. Watford nearly gifted a goal to the Saints as a cross from Targett was turned goalwards by Holebas, but Gomes was able to make the save. Southampton threatened again as Capoue lost out in midfield and Romeu played a through ball to Long whose shot was into the side netting but the flag was already up for offside. A hospital ball from Jurado was picked up by Mané and it took good work from Gomes to put him off his shot which rebounded off the post. Then a clearance from Watson only went as far as Fonte who shot over the target. Southampton attacked again as Cédric’s cross reached Long in the box but, under pressure from Prödl, his header was weak and easily gathered by Gomes. Jurado, caught in possession, played a panicked back pass and, again, Gomes was forced to save from his own player. It was a relief when the half time whistle went. It had been a truly dreadful half of football from the Hornets. Capoue and Watson, normally so reliable, seemed to have been replaced with their non-footballer twins and Jurado was back to his early season form. Every pass we made found a Southampton player and they, in turn, seemed to be able to break at will. Only Gomes stood between us and a tonking.

Deeney and Ighalo in the Southampton box

Deeney and Ighalo in the Southampton box

During the interval we met with lovely Ross Wilson, who is clearly loving his role at Southampton. I was particularly grateful to him as, on a filthy night, I was able to partake of a nice glass of red wine in the comfort of the Matt Le Tissier Suite to get my strength back before the restart.

There was an early second half scare for the Hornets as Mané challenged for a header in the box, he clashed with Gomes, who needed treatment, and Prödl had to clear off the line. On the hour, Flores made his first substitution as Anya replaced Abdi. The Scotsman was soon involved in the best Watford move of the game so far as he ran down the right wing and put in a cross that only just evaded the head of Ighalo. Southampton had the ball in the net for a second time as Davis latched on to a through ball before finishing past Gomes, but the flag had been raised for some time so it didn’t count. Then Romeu tried a shot from the edge of the area, but Gomes was equal to it. Watford’s first booking came when Prödl clashed with Long in what looked like a 50-50 challenge, but the Irishman went down and Prödl was shown a yellow card.

Capoue plays a pass

Capoue plays a pass

Flores then made a totally unexpected change replacing Nyom with Ibarbo who was supposed to be on his way out of the club. The home fans sitting behind us were all laughing and saying, “Who? None of us know who you are.” I couldn’t help thinking that many Watford fans would have been equally baffled. Southampton really should have been two up with 20 minutes to go as van Dijk played a ball across the box, Long failed to connect but it reached Mané whose shot, thankfully, hit the side netting. The home side had another decent chance after Jurado was tackled by Long, who advanced before cutting the ball back to Mané who shot wide of the target. That was his last contribution to the game as he was replaced by Tadic. Watford’s second substitution saw Cathcart come on for Britos. There was a rare attack by the visitors as Watson launched a free-kick into the Southampton box, but nobody could get a head to it and the ball was hooked clear. Southampton’s second goal came on 73 minutes and it was the substitute, Tadic, who latched on to a long ball, with both Prödl and Anya challenging him he still found space for a shot and beat Gomes to the delight of all in the posh seats except Toddy and I. But it was no more than they deserved. After a trip on Ighalo was waved on by the referee, Deeney saw a bit of red mist and was booked for a strong challenge on Romeu. The home side threatened again as Davis crossed for Long, but Prödl ensured that he couldn’t make it count.

The away fans at St Mary's

The away fans at St Mary’s

With 10 minutes remaining, Watford finally had their first shot on target, but a deflection took the pace off Deeney’s effort and Forster was able to save. The Watford faithful in the corner started a chant of “We’ve had a shot.” Ighalo was the next to try his luck with a couple of scoops, but his shot was blocked. Then Cathcart decided to take charge as he picked up a Southampton clearance, advanced and tried a shot but Forster was behind it. It was probably our best chance of the game and inspired the away fans to bounce much to the confusion of the Southampton fans around us. Tadic had a chance to increase the lead as he latched on to a weak clearance from Prödl, but he shot over the target. Yet again a Watford attack was turned into defence as a Deeney cross was headed clear and the ball reached the other end of the field, Long was about to shoot when a brilliant saving tackle from Holebas stopped him. The fourth official held the board up indicating the addition of 5 minutes, my only thought was ‘please make this stop.’ Thankfully, when it did stop, we had not done ourselves any further damage.

I have seen a number of comments since the game expressing the concern that teams are now working out how to play against us. I couldn’t help recalling that, when we played Southampton in August, they didn’t allow us a single shot on target so, statistically, we had done better in this game. So saying, this was the worst Watford performance that I have witnessed all season. In the post-match interviews Flores apologized to the fans for the performance and Deeney gave his usual honest perspective. I can’t get too worked up about the abject performance as it was the first time this season that I have seen us playing so dreadfully. But we have now lost three league games in a row so need to kick start our second half of the season. Next Monday in Swansea will be very interesting indeed.