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Watford 1 Middlesbrough 0 (15/02/2014) 16/02/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- By half time, comparisons were being drawn with the notorious Christmas of 1996.  This was a different flavour of tedium to Tuesday night… less hulking ineptitude, more of a stalemate, but the consequence was yawning, shifting position, wondering whether it would start raining again as we left the stadium and then letting your attention half-heartedly return to the game.  Gripping, interesting it really wasn’t. Those on the edge of their seats had fallen asleep and were slumped in their stupor.

Boro looked a decent side, for all that.  Given and Woodgate were excellent, every bit the players of their reputations.  Nathaniel Chalobah began the game dictating the pace from the back of the midfield, Leadbitter slinging the ball around, Adomah and Ledesma hugging the touchlines and causing problems (even if the latter twice appeared to blame rogue patches of the Vicarage Road surface for his misplaced efforts from the right).  We scarcely got a touch for twenty minutes, chasing shadows… but the visitors couldn’t capitalise.  Part of the credit for that has to go to our increasingly well-drilled rearguard, Cassetti and Angella terrific again, but there was no avoiding that Boro didn’t have much of a focal point… not hard to understand how they’ve not scored in five games.  Danny Graham is still clever, still works hard but lacked support… and there’s rather more of him than I remember.  Nimble and mobile he wasn’t… and most of Boro’s passing took place in front of the defence.

Irish Joe, having navigated the inevitable flight delays to make his first game of the season, had asked about Sannino.  How was he doing?  How were we looking?  More solid, was my response in summary.  More solid, but not as… exciting.  “Ah, but we’ve always got Fernando to pull something from nothing”, Joe suggested, prophetically.  So it proved; ‘nando bundled in on a surprised Gibson early in the second half, cut past him towards the byline and drew a silly challenge from the flustered defender.  Troy rolled in from the spot, and the game changed beyond recognition.

2- An emerging subplot to the first half had been a private competition in ineptitude – Muppet of the Match, Dickhead of the Day, invent your own monicker – between Samba Diakité and Boro centre-back Ben Gibson. Diakité, making his first start since arriving from QPR, looked every inch like a player who hadn’t played for a year.  Frequently caught in possession, seemingly unaware of the location or proximity of teammates and opponents alike he looked like someone who’d won a starting position through a competition in the programme.

Gibson, however, was putting up a good fight in this masterclass of arse.  Already booked for a stupid, unnecessary foul on Deeney, he took a huge risk late in the first half when diving in to interrupt a monumental surge upfield from Gabriele Angella.  The run needed stopping, the aggressive challenge was well-timed but risky nonetheless – inside the area and already on a card, no margin for error as he appeared to fly in from some distance away.  In conceding the critical penalty Gibson edged ahead.

But Diakité was about to play his trump card.  The game quickly settled into a new pattern with Boro now committing forward and the Hornets attacking exclusively on the break.  The first of these was repelled, barely, with a loose ball breaking clear from the edge of the area.  Diakité and Whitehead contested it head on, the latter the favourite but the Frenchman decided that he wasn’t to be denied. Two footed, studs raised… having recently gained an unlikely looking advantage in a tight game it was an act of monumental stupidity, all instinct and ego and no brain whatsoever.  Straight red the only viable outcome, the card followed within five seconds.

As Diakité left the arena, the only thing standing between him and his crown was Gibson’s continuing involvement and therefore opportunity.  It proved a critical detail.  Boro, now very much in the ascendancy, threw everything at us for five minutes and the remainder of the game stretched uninvitingly in front of us.  And then Mr Gibson had his own rush of enthusiasm and, as Jonathan Bond attempted a drop kick, chose to obstruct him. A moronic act at the best of times but with Gibson on a yellow and his team having just been handed a lifeline by an act of similar idiocy, it was quite breathtaking.  Kudos to Mr Gibson, then, even if Nathaniel Chalobah (with a peevish punch aimed at Forestieri) and the Kaiser’s compatriot Jozsef Varga at right back (with a series of increasingly stroppy challenges that earned a yellow and then a last warning and then the hook from the Boro bench) made worthy but patently inadequate pitches of their own.

3- The penalty and the two red cards took place within the first twelve minutes of the half.  They left whopping great craters all over whatever gameplans had been in place, and if we’d looked anything but impressive before going ahead what followed was an absolute masterclass in navigating the revised landscape.

I remember visiting Dortmund zoo late one evening many years ago, and watching in awe and fear as the hunting dogs faced us in formation.  You’d move a step to the left and the dogs, in their pen in the dwindling twilight, would all shift accordingly, well drilled and utterly attentive. Nine, ten of them.  The yellow shirts were equally disciplined in formation here… one or two envoys hurtling forward to support Deeney on the break, back in formation by the time the ball came back the other way.  Forestieri dropped back into a midfield role and a surprisingly effective defensive display before being replaced by the equally dynamic Battocchio.  We played exclusively on the break, abetted by Anya’s perhaps overdue introduction for Faraoni, and suddenly had a swagger, suddenly looked potent.  Boro continued to have more possession, but the better, clearer chances would come our way… George Friend, it transpired, had a better chance of matching Anya for pace than many adversaries but it wasn’t enough to prevent our best break which saw the winger beat Given and the far post.  Another break saw Anya release Deeney with a perfect throughball that bypassed Chalobah only for Given to emerge from his line and time his interjection to perfection.  Murray, like Forestieri largely irrelevant in the first half, suddenly had the game between his teeth, bringing the ball out and making good decisions, red shirts scuttling in his wake.  Daniel Pudil, less eyecatching but far more reliable as our wingbacks have placed more emphasis on defending, put in a tireless shift on the left flank.  And Captain Deeney was simply magnificent, every inch the leader… bullish, aggressive, holding the ball up, retaining possession, relieving pressure on the defence, this was by some distance his best 45 minutes of the season.

4- But perhaps the real highlight was at the other end of the pitch.  It was a good afternoon for those who like a bit of an ovation.  Sir Tom Finney got a fitting tribute before the kick-off, the heartfelt ones always distinguished from the dutiful ones by dint of the applause already being in full swing before the referee formally starts the minute’s appreciation.  Danny Graham and Nathaniel Chalobah were both welcomed (although the latter was to turn the crowd via his altercation with Fernando), and later the departing Forestieri and arriving Anya were both warmly recognised.  Tommie Hoban’s welcome, though, was the warmest. It’s testimony to his impact in four months in the first team last year that a year and a week since his last first team appearance, everyone is delighted to have him back… and again, this was more than dutiful appreciation of a youngster who’s had it rough, this was genuine excitement.

And trepidation, at least in my case.  Worst case scenario:  he limps off five minutes after his half-time introduction.  We’ve seen that before.  Or maybe he looks rusty, slower, less confident.  “Not the same player”.  You know, they’re never the same player, not after that long out. Perhaps he messes up, an unfortunate mistake that rattles his confidence and sets him back, pushed back in the queue behind Angella, Doyley, Ekstrand, Hall, Cassetti, Nosworthy, Belkalem. No margin for error.

There’s still time for things to go wrong, of course.  Early days. But my God this was magnificent, beyond our wildest expectations.  Every inch the combination of strength, pace, composure and just being too bloody good for this nonsense that we remember from last year.  Well done, Tommie, and welcome back.

5- If Tuesday’s final whistle was greeted with relief, relief at having navigated a harder-than-it-should-have-been scrap with modest opponents, the final whistle today was met with a fist-pumping roar.  We quoted this stat on Tuesday, but it only gets more impressive with time… that’s seven home games under Sannino, one goal conceded.  And having pointed out that it was unreasonable to put our repeated capitulations at home under Gianfranco down to mere bad luck, it’s not reasonable to credit luck with too much responsibility for our recent ability to defend a lead – at least at Vicarage Road.  It keeps happening.

And as we clamber back into the top half of the table we should pause once more to doff our cap to the presence of the play-offs.  Not that we’re on a charge, not yet anyway.  Let’s see.  But just to their existence, without which our season would already be over.  Six points off and with further winnable fixtures to come, there’s still scope to train our eye on Reading in sixth.  Oh sure, us and half the division, but we’re not fussed about them.  Let’s just worry about ourselves for the moment, and actually we’re looking pretty good.  If Tuesday was winning ugly, winning without looking convincing, here was a win grounded in defensive organisation, sure, but in guts and fight and spirit too.  I’ll take that.  Wherever it sees us ending up, guts and fight and spirit go an awfully long way.



Watford 1 Birmingham City 0 (12/02/2013) 12/02/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1-  Sometimes, football is a beautiful, breathtaking spectacle.  Artistic and elegant, bold and dramatic, capable of lifting the spirit and carrying it away from all of life’s concerns to a happier place.  This was definitively not one of those times.  If football at its best is a duel between musketeers, all cut, thrust and dexterity, this was the equivalent of two trolls knee-deep in treacle heaving clubs at each other.  And grunting.

Mark, Steve and Tom were with me, football fans but not Watford fans, colleagues of my brother’s from oop north accommodating his need for a fix on a business trip.  He was apologising to them midway through the first half as passes went into touch, runs were mis-read and the game descended gently from a low starting point to knuckle-chewing tedium.  We have become accustomed, of course, to the established successful recipe for playing Watford at Vicarage Road, which includes lots of closing down high up the pitch, harrying and waiting for us to make a mistake.  Here, we pre-empted City’s closing down (which did come) by starting the game exactly as if  we were being hounded in possession to a far greater degree than was happening, saving the visitors the bother.  The goal itself summed up the evening nicely…  Troy Deeney, rightly lauded by Sannino for a combative, bloody-minded performance, pirouetting an air kick, regaining his poise and having another go, this time driving home via a deflection of a defender’s leg.

2- It’s worth noting that, for all the continued use of the closing-down thing it’s not proving nearly as effective for visitors as it once was.  That’s four wins, a draw and a defeat at home under Sannino, five clean sheets and one goal conceded against visitors including 3 of the current top 7.  Lee Clark, who looks perpetually like a sulky schoolboy sitting outside the headteacher’s office, claimed that City were worth at least a point but his view was rather fanciful.  City could have equalised, certainly (see below) but that’s not the same thing; in a miserable chore of a game, you did kinda feel that there was unrealised quality in the Watford side which was having a duvet day, whereas Birmingham were offering what they had and it wasn’t much, even if the combination of obstructiveness and a goal threat in Burke and Macheda will probably be enough to keep them up.  In any event it’s a source of no small enjoyment, particularly amongst those who’ll remember the 1999 play-offs and trips to St Andrews around that time, that we’ve beaten City four times on the hop without conceding a goal.

3- Which shouldn’t oversugar the performance, and in particular a petulance that was perhaps symptomatic of a frustrating evening all round but aggravating nonetheless.  In particular, given the high turnover of players that the Pozzo model has provoked, such conduct makes it very difficult to warm to a side… the same behaviour from more established favourites might be more readily forgiven, but this Watford will be in a constant battle to win hearts and minds.  Andreas Merkel jumping in two footed on Burke for no reason at all doesn’t help that, nor does perpetually wandering away from the referee as he’s issuing admonishment (misguided or otherwise).  Most concerning of all in this regard was Fernando Forestieri… arguably the success story of last season in terms of his trajectory from aggravating, sulky maverick to focused, combative dynamo.  His recent performances have been excellent, despite which the whining and gesticulating is back with a vengeance.  He didn’t have the best relationship with the ref last night, who offered him little protection and provoked a curious incident by appearing to beckon Forestieri back on after treatment, change his mind on realising how close the Argentine was to the action and then make to penalise him for entering the field without permission.  In fairness the official acknowledged his own culpability, apologised and awarded a drop ball…  but Forestieri really didn’t do himself any favours either, ultimately risking a red card by first clawing a ball out of the air in an attempt to fashion a break (for which he was booked), playing on and “scoring” on the break after the whistle had gone and subsequently blatantly slowing the game down by standing six or seven yards from a late Birmingham free kick.  Much has been spoken of the need for leaders in the team.  A few of our lot needed a kick up the backside last night.

4- Another recent hobbyhorse has been our tendency to sit back on a late lead, whether strategically or through lack of energy in the closing minutes.  At Leicester we paid for it;  last night we didn’t.  Actually I thought the introduction of Hall for Forestieri and subsequent rearrangement of personnel leaving Anya – much missed last night – up front was a good call on Saturday, but good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Inviting pressure from a Birmingham side with scarcely the wit to fashion a clear chance but with enough about them to look a gift horse in the mouth and knock it’s teeth out was much less defensible; I’d have preferred us to take the game to them in the final minutes.  If that sitting back’s a strategy, it might get tiresome.

5- Which shouldn’t detract from the fact that we did win the game.  A game that, as the cliché goes, we would have almost certainly lost a month or two back.  And amongst the morass there were straws to cling to…  a tour de force from Lloyd Doyley, albeit that it speaks volumes that mere dogged competence stood out so brightly on a grey evening;  another masterful showing in the centre of the back three from Marco Cassetti, and once again “Kaiser” Tözsér.  Whilst the Hungarian was as sucked up into the humdrum as everyone else, he nonetheless did the Jonathan Hogg thing of receiving the ball under pressure and effortlessly moving it on, spreading the play, keeping things ticking.  And his set piece delivery is a joy… one wicked free kick should have been converted by Faraoni, a vicious corner very nearly was by Forestieri’s diagonal run and diving header  – but for the man on the far post.  Ugly progress, then.  But progress nonetheless.

Leicester City 2 Watford 2 (08/02/2014) 09/02/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1-  Walking to the ground, the wind howling around us much as it did prior to the same regular-season fixture last year, it was difficult to escape the thought that we could probably have done without this one at this stage.  I missed what was widely lauded as The Turning of The Corner last Sunday, but such positive steps as we have been taking are delicate, precarious things.  Like an addict walking away from their vice, one day, one game at a time.  It wouldn’t take much to take us back to square one, and our forthcoming run of more plausibly winnable-looking games would have seemed a lot more inviting without a trip to rampant Leicester in the meantime.  A Leicester who gave us a mauling at our place in November that had more subtext than Alice in Wonderland.

So, much as there was a sense of cup-tie nothing-to-looseness there was something more than a little ominous about the way that the bright blue sky was gradually blotted out by stormclouds as kick-off approached.

Bye Bye Sun

2- Having said all of which the impossible swirling wind, wind that was strong enough to make eating chips outside the ground a Krypton Factor level exercise in dexterity, was the classic leveller.  And there may have been something at the back of Leicester’s psyche, the knowledge that the winning run would end sometime, that this one would take that run into double figures, and that, you know, it was us.  History’n’that.  In any event, we didn’t start the game in the manner of a side that had rolled up either expecting to be scalped or hoping to park the bus.  Deeney slugged a shot narrowly over the bar…  then Tözsér’s curled free kick dropped to Faraoni flying in at the far post, his header into the side-netting.  And then we were ahead… Deeney curled the ball across from the left.  Cross?  Shot?  Either way ‘nando was alert and threw himself across the ball to power a header home.  One-nil, and suitably unrestrained acknowledgement in the low-roofed away end.  The game continued to hurtle around in the manner of the weather…  Manu came out for one of any number of City corners, the wind caught the ball and carried it goalwards and the keeper was forced to change direction and tip over, a fine stop.  Angella came close to outdoing his Forest effort, flicking up a corner to scissor a volley goalwards, Schmeichel responded with a stunning reaction save. And then two…  Forestieri, a dynamic box of tricks throughout, hounded down de Laet in the right-back position and laid back to Anya.  Anya squared to Murray who fashioned a space and then drove past Schmeichel.

3- So did we blow it?  If we did it was in the period of play that immediately followed our second goal.  We’d responded impeccably to going ahead, staying on the front foot, staying aggressive and retaining our discipline.  After Murray’s goal however City came at us down their right, de Laet squared and James tucked away tidily, our two goal lead halved straight away.  A decent move, but we repelled the many other decent moves that City threw at us throughout the rest of the game.  Here we seemed a little bit dazed, a little bit too pleased with ourselves and perhaps ready for the interval… whereas City got straight back at us and brought the deficit back to a single goal immediately.

But this was very, very far from the Nottingham Forest disaster ten days ago.  Leicester are a far more accomplished opponent and threw more at us than their Midlands neighbours had at the City Ground, particularly in a second half that was a classic kitchen sink job for the most part, City throw numbers forward, we put bodies on the line and try to catch them on the break.  And we did a bloody good job of it too… the home side didn’t eke out many chances for all their possession, and showed signs of not being used to being in this position – Kasper Schmeichel at one point flying out to deny an already offside Forestieri took a risk with a waist high attempted volley that was closer to connecting with the Argentine than the ball – fortunately for the Dane he missed both.

Yes, yes, they got the goal, and a fine strike too into roughly the same corner as Nathaniel Chalobah’s howitzer had flown nine months ago (yup).  Rather they hadn’t, naturally, but if it were to happen you’d rather it was that way… them earning the draw with a worldy rather than us messing up to throw it away.  Because, yes, Drinkwater could perhaps have been closed down, and, yes, we’d had chances to put it to bed… not least Forestieri, released by an astonishing reverse-pass from Ekstrand, who overhit a cross to Deeney on the break when a shot across the face looked like the better bet.  Such criticisms are churlish;  this was a massive performance that nearly yielded a massive result.  Three away games on the hop we’ve let two goal leads slip, true, but you’ve got to give high quality opposition some credit too.  Of the three games, only at Forest did we do any throwing away.

4- My first view of Daniel “Kaiser” Tözsér, and if this wasn’t the masterful performance that dispatches from Brighton reported, the Hungarian nonetheless looked a valuable addition to the side on any number of levels.  For the first time this season the team has a pendulum, someone setting the rhythm from the back of the midfield… and, do not scratch your eyes, someone shouting and cajoling and organising, bringing the defence out, directing.  I remember that… that’s a captain that is.  Add a suave set piece delivery and you’ve got a big tick on this outing, only a silly yellow for a needless foul blotting his copybook.

Elsewhere, other than Forestieri, highlights included the performances of Cassetti, a perhaps surprising call in the centre of the defence for Hall, and for the impeccable Angella.  So too the splendid Human League-inspired chant for Daniel Pudil (“Daniel Pudil Baby….”), which one can only hope will start a trend for early eighties adaptations before Park “Too Much” Chu Young comes back from his knock.

5- Leicester were giving it large at the end of the game, not unreasonably in context although to a greater extent than a home draw against a mid-table side to terminate a winning run probably merited.  They do have previous on this of course… the “we’re going to Wembley, you’re not” chants that followed their first leg play-off win in May weren’t quite on a par with Palace’s premature “Eagle Express” train to Cardiff in 2006 but they weren’t too clever nonetheless.  Beyond dispute though is that we’ve had some belting games against City over the past few years (and not just the play-offs…  the Danny Graham one?  The Chalobah one?  The Craig Forsyth one?  The Heidar one?) and it seems likely that this run will now take a pause of a season at least.  Difficult to dispute that they’ve merited it either… comfortably the best we’ve seen this season and a far stiffer test than the side we beat in the play-offs.  We gave them a(nother) hell of a game today though.  Progress.