Watford 2 Norwich City 3 (AET) (24/09/2013) 25/09/2013Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1- There was a time not so very long ago when watching Watford wasn’t a lot of fun. Whilst odd games will always test the patience, that hasn’t been the case for a number of years. This season, as for so much of last, every game is an intrigue; such is the talent and exuberance in our squad that even the relatively mundane encounters are to be cherished. Here was another that swept along in moods like I imagine classical music might. Rolling drums and anticipation at the start of the first half, a thunderclap segueing into a calmer, gentler mood piece as the first half closed. Strings and flamboyant melodies for much of the second and then a sickening, stunning crescendo as the game closed. All in all, a spectacle. At respectably affordable League Cup prices, no one will have left feeling short changed.
The opening was all anticipation, and the drumrolls were provided by the immediate pressure that Norwich put on us a long way up the pitch. We’ve played City a million times before, this tie had none of the lustre of a Manchester United or a Liverpool… nonetheless, this is a competent top-flight City side, and to see them adopting such an archetypal Championship approach – pressure, pressure, pressure, but with better-than-Championship players – was ominous. We exhibited a determination to retain possession and play out from the back but whilst this issued a clear “we’re not scared of you” statement to City it was nonetheless precarious. The back three of Cassetti, Belkalem and particularly Ekstrand were tremendous throughout the 90 minutes but our determination to play through City saw us giving the ball away, perversely, far too often. Throughout all this, debutant Josh McEachran was a force for good; tidy, efficient and most of all decisive in possession, he slotted in very well indeed before departing with a back strain towards the end of the half – a worrying injury for a young player.
The drumrolls ceased suddenly after our goal, of which more below. City seemed cowed by it, although perhaps sitting back was a deliberate strategy aimed at bringing us out and providing space for their deft wide players, who provided all of their threat. For all that they’d started the game on top, Jonathan Bond, like Bunn in the City goal, had had precious little to do. Anyhow, if it was a deliberate strategy it didn’t work; it gave us a foothold, allowed us to start playing, and set the tone for the second half.
2- Digressing briefly, I can’t help but feel that extra points should be awarded for any goal that justifies the use of the word WALLOP in text message dispatches to those AWOL elsewhere. The first three goals of the game all fall into this category. Javier Acuña had only very recently escaped censure for an utterly unrestrained attempt to win the ball by torpedoing in on a City wide player in the manner of Belkalem against Charlton, missing his target (fortunately) and flying into touch, as if he were a Subbuteo player flicked by an amateur high on power and low on precision. Minutes later he used his strength to better effect, turning Bennett with his backside Mark Hughes style and belting the ball through two defenders and past Bunn who was simultaneously close to it and nowhere near stopping it. In the second half Davide Faraoni, in comfortably his most impressive outing to date, went one better, seizing on a slack cross-field ball, advancing to about 25 yards out and spanking it top corner. Hugely encouraging that whilst, as Zola acknowledges and everyone recognises, it hasn’t quite clicked yet, we’ve still managed 26 goals in 11 games. Heaven help everyone else when we get it right.
3- We grasped the space that Norwich had decided to afford us and tore into it in the second half. As so often we were vastly more impressive after the break; on other occasions you might have attributed this to opponents’ legs tiring, a side set up to disrupt and obstruct running out of steam. That hadn’t been the story of the first half though, this wasn’t a reflection of Norwich running out of energy, just a turn in the tide of the game that kept on turning. Diego Fabbrini’s effectiveness has been in question in games where snappier passing has been required to unlock an obdurate opponent, but here with City never playing that kind of game and ultimately needing to commit forwards in the second half he was irrepressible, flowing around challenges with the ball apparently fixed to his boot by an obstinate piece of discarded chewing gum. The slimline, revitalised Sean Murray was on the front foot too… occasionally guilty of surrendering cheap possession, he was nonetheless perpetually in search of the ball and displayed Anya-like stamina, covering every inch for 120 minutes. For much of the second half City looked beaten… heads dropped, sub Johan Elmander’s pathetic attempt to recover a misplaced throughball under the attention of the fabulous Ekstrand screamed “sod this for a game of soldiers”. We rattled out of defence irresistibly, flamboyantly on the counter-attack, olés ringing around Vicarage Road. All that was missing was another goal…
4- Several factors lead to the game turning again. The need for Norwich to assert themselves was one, the introduction of Leroy Fer who grabbed the midfield, gave it a good kicking and then sent it trundling in his preferred direction another. City’s first goal from impressive debutant Murphy was out of nowhere, although seemed close enough to somewhere for Jonathan Bond to have done rather more than watch it whistle past. Bond made a couple of extravagant stops but was also visibly chastised by captain Cassetti on more than one occasion for not commanding his box, a stark contrast to our senior keeper. He will have better nights.
Ultimately, it was about concentration. Credit to City who kept plugging and had the quality in the delivery and the finish to level the game with the last touch of the ninety-plus…. but whilst they’d been applying pressure we weren’t under the cosh. It wasn’t a case of a bough that was always going to break… with five minutes of injury time rolling away all it took was one player – presumably Pudil – to subconsciously slip into thinking that the game was won, and not close down his man.
From that point, whilst it’s not quite true that we were clinging on for penalties – we had chances in extra time – we were certainly on the back foot with City dominant for the first time in the game. We suffered perhaps through the injuries to McEachran and Acuña necessitating earlier subs than might have been ideal; as early as the start of extra time Cristian Battocchio, at 21 the veteran of a very young central midfield, was struggling with cramp and immobile. City knocked hard at the door, and eventually, inevitably, burst through. The game ended with frustrated fisticuffs in the box at the Rookery end, an episode from which the officials, exemplary all night (although City fans clearly had an opinion on the linesman at their end) emerged particularly well. The game wasn’t lost in extra time, it was lost in the dying seconds of the 90. It was no longer a fair fight.
5- But ultimately, not a bad night for Watford and plenty of cause for optimism. Not only did we give a Premier League side a good game, not only did we come very close to beating them but we would have beaten them by outplaying them… not destructively and based on blood and guts alone, although there’s plenty of joy in that manner of victory, but by beating them at what ought to have been their own game. With Wigan to come on Saturday, we are able to cushion the impact of extra time by reintroducing Almunia, Doyley, Angella, Anya, McGugan, Iriney, none of whom featured this evening; realistically, only two or perhaps three of those who lasted the duration ( a wingback, a defender, perhaps a midfielder) will be in the starting line-up on Saturday. Rather a better preparation than being stuff 5-0 in Manchester. Yes, it’s frustrating to lose in these circumstances. But as frustration goes, we’ve known far worse. Yoooorns.