Watford 1 Sunderland 0 (01/04/2017) 02/04/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- The thing about losing a rubbish game before an international break is that you have two weeks of fidgeting before getting back to it. A period in which you can afford, or pretend, to forget about bloody football for a bit for, what, half an hour or so? Before focusing intently on the forthcoming game. For two weeks. Minus the five minutes or so for which internationals distracted you.
The more so this time. The ominous-looking running stretched out before of us, front-heavy with more obviously winnable games meaning that we can either get it sorted quickly with points in the bag or be left teetering needing to get points from games that didn’t look like yielding many. Our recent form meant that this one, home to the Worst Team In The League, could perhaps have fallen more helpfully. Added to which Troy is poorly, the traditional pre-match restaurant has buggered around with its menu (“refreshing” its offering by, you know, giving you less food for the same money) and there is a tangible edginess on Vicarage Road.
2- Nervous on the pitch too, no sign of the flying start that has become traditional. Sunderland pressed very high, very early… befitting of a side with a predatory Jermain Defoe as a threat and not much else. Five minutes in Januzaj slung a ball in from the left, it was nervously watched by defenders and attackers alike and Gomes fell to his right to push it around the post.
Worst fears were in danger of being realised, but this wasn’t to be the constipated performance of recent weeks. In part this reflected the paucity of the opposition, but either way within five minutes M’Baye Niang was running at the Sunderland defence and we were making chances. Holebas, Doucouré (twice) and Niang all tested Pickford, Okaka got on the end of a cross and sent a header over. It was still awkward and lumpy, a little bit deliberate, but it was positive. At the other end the mythical threat offered by Defoe focused attention; Miguel Britos and Younès Kaboul both flew in to deny the striker a glimpse of goal. It was still anxious, it wasn’t terribly convincing. But we were on top.
3- Sunderland are a particularly odd side. Poor, obviously, but in a wonky sort of way. Defoe, as above, is a menace albeit kept at arm’s length. Pickford is pretty extraordinary… alert to the shots that rattled in on his goal, commanding and authoritative and dropping missiles with laser accuracy deep in the Watford half, some thrown, some kicked.
And the rest of it was bobbins. Adnan Januzaj tripped around aimlessly. Billy Jones looked for someone to have a fight with. Bryan Oviedo spent much of the game watching an unchecked overlap disappearing over his shoulder. It seems inconceivable that Sunderland will be in the top flight next season. It’s similarly unlikely that either Defoe or Pickford will make the drop with them, which really doesn’t leave them with very much. Lots of sides in the Championship have a couple of solid centre backs and a scrapping midfield. There are plenty of clubs knocking around worthier of disdain than Sunderland, but this lot will disappear without trace.
4- The Hornets, meanwhile, took advantage of the situation. Easy to say with hindsight, easy given the result… but perhaps this game didn’t fall too badly for us after all. We weren’t great. This performance wouldn’t have beaten many opponents in this division. But we did win, and we gain confidence and belief… and we were visibly doing so as the game progressed. Cathcart, first at right back and then in the centre after the afternoon’s obligatory injury forced Younès Kaboul off, was absolutely terrific, Miguel Britos similarly assured alongside him. M’baye Niang floated in and out of the game… but when he’s running at defenders he’s a menace, this was a dramatic improvement on recent weeks. Most impressive of all was Abdoulaye Doucouré, the team’s metronome at the back of the midfield. we’re now seeing the imposing midfielder that we thought we’d signed, our man of the match for the second week running.
The scoreline, the scruffy nature of the goal might make this look like a less comprehensive, less accomplished win than it was. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t a blessed relief when it came, Britos finally doing what he’s threatened to do at regular intervals over the last couple of seasons and getting on the end of something in the box… the release of tension was evident all over the ground. It was brief, however… Isaac Success, afforded a relatively long cameo, was sent skidding through by the utterly functional Okaka but was foiled by the onrushing Pickford. Later he tiptoed through legs in the penalty area before thumping a low shot goalwards that Pickford again repelled. Okaka attacked Niang’s cross from the left but was denied by O’Shea whose anticipation was a fraction better. Lee Probert, who has had worse days officiating Hornets games, nonetheless missed a penalty shout as Okaka had his shirt dragged round his midriff in full view of an unimpressed Rookery. A one-goal lead never feels secure, whatever the circumstances.
5- As the final whistle neared Sunderland inevitably chased the result. Borini fired in a shot that forced Gomes into an adroit stop; that he was alert to it after such a long time doing nothing is itself worthy of praise. Wahib Khazri, who had given the visitors a bit of much needed welly off the bench, lined up a free kick. It was a microcosm of the game itself, a game the result of which might effectively represent a fork in the road between a relatively comfortable end of the season and a relegation scrap. So too here, almost the last kick of the game… perhaps the most important free kick we’d face this season. If it had flown top corner we were royally screwed. Instead, the most welcome of Neil Cox tributes, it went straight into the wall. Game over. Ridiculously, if briefly, we were in the top half.
Which doesn’t mean that everything’s OK, but our recent travails were thrown into stark relief today. This is what a truly awful side, rather that a side struggling for shape and form, looks like. Even at our low ebb we were plenty good enough for this challenge. There are still things that need sorting, we still have a load of useful looking bits that aren’t quite coming together in a humming machine. But we look a lot better than a relegation side nonetheless. One more win ought to confirm this… would be nice if it was earned on an (all too rare and much missed) night under the lights at the Vic on Tuesday.