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Watford 2 Crystal Palace 1 (16/03/2019) 18/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- I was in Copenhagen this week. First time in Denmark. A conference though so a busy schedule, and most of it spent in a hotel. Nice hotel but… a shame to visit a new country and not see any of it.

So. Tuesday evening I set out to find the damned mermaid. A bloody-minded mission in defiance of a 50-minute walk each way in the cold, biting rain borne of the need to get out and walk somewhere with purpose.

I knew that the statue itself was famously underwhelming. Not big, not dramatic, not something to write home about. So my expectations weren’t high. In consequence perhaps I found the unassuming, unpretentious mermaid quite charming. No grandstanding. No ticket vendors, no tat-stalls, no queuing. Just…there, minding its own business as the world carried on quietly around it.

Which led me to wonder… if something unheralded and uncelebrated could leave me pleasantly surprised, what should, could be expected from something, contrastingly, overburdened with expectation? Would it be possible, conceivable, to be anything but disappointed?

2- Nobody disappointed. Nobody short-changed.

The tide of confidence was rolling by 11.15. That’s when “it’s bloody Palace, isn’t it?” was swept over and crushed. But in effect the build up to that wave, the little ripples, started at least a week earlier as Palace lost to Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle earned unlikely wins and the Eagles started looking over their shoulders again. So when Zaha pulled a calf muscle in training it was never going to be risked.

It may not have been significant, certainly not decisive in determining the outcome of the game. We’ve beaten Palace twice this season with the gravitationally challenged one in tow after all. But your opponent losing a key man doesn’t hurt, and the timing was significant. Nervous energy rippled through the V-Bar as confirmation of the previous evening’s rumour set grins grinning and bellows bellowing.

Out in the stands it was no less raucous. High fives were exchanged, knowing looks traded. The ferocious wind carried the multitude of flags and the tremendous 1881’s cannons fired slugs of streamers and confetti into a whirlwind of bedlam. “Is that all you take away?” was roared at an away end, some of whose members had been vocally demanding more than their ticket entitlement. Then the football started.

3- And what followed was a quite herculean first half. Made better, more impressive if anything by the fact that Palace took the early initiative, moving the ball neatly and just about retaining possession as we hurtled about after it, Étienne Capoue blown along by a wind commanded by the Gods. It didn’t last though, the penetration wasn’t there and much as Michy Batshuayi provided a focal point he was getting nothing.

Meanwhile at the Rookery end more significant headway was being made, and Gerard Deulofeu was at the heart of it. He cut through first and forced Guaita – a supposed one time target for us, but a nervous looking individual here – into a save. By the time the goal came we were hammering on the door increasingly insistently; the latest in a succession of corners was flung across by Holebas, the keeper lunged at it ambitiously before it was knocked back to Capoue and into the net before Palace’s defence, or the support behind the goal, had time to react.

Voices were hoarse and limbs being disentangled by the time focus returned to the pitch. For the rest of the half we had our foot on their throats. Deulofeu roared through on the right and hammered a drive towards Guaita’s unguarded near top corner. As so often there might have been better options… but churlish to criticise, it almost came off and was denied only by a fine stop. Kevin Friend, who has made a pig’s ear of far less challenging games but did a good job here awarded us a free kick, Deulofeu did well to get it on target, but a comfortable save for Guaita. The half ended with Palace breaking after some rare slack possession from the Hornets, and Deulofeu screaming back in pursuit of possession, eventually obstructing the attack by the corner flag. Heroic stuff. Meanwhile Andros Townsend was in a right old strop, remonstrating with officials as Holebas lay prone with a knock that would force him off at one end, then repeating the trick at the Rookery end shortly afterwards. We were all over this. There was just one problem.

4- Which lurched into view with the second half. Being worth more than a one goal lead is fine, as long as you capitalise on it. The visitors were out significantly earlier than us… I normally think of this as a good thing, time spent hanging around and so forth. Instead they took control from the start of the half, piling bodies down the flanks to bypass the surrendered centreground.

Again, they failed to convert their possession into chances. The one save that Gomes made at 1-0 was a fine one to deny a Meyer header as it bounced through the box… on review this may have been our biggest break during the game, a flick off Cheick Kouyaté might have wrong-footed the keeper. Instead he pulled out a stunning reflex save.

When the goal came and much as it felt like it had been coming, it was our own doing. Mariappa at fault, certainly, but not entirely. If we’re honest, and much as it goes against the prevailing sentiment, Gomes’ sliced clearance to Femenía created a situation that could have been avoided, much as Mariappa, who otherwise did a decent job of subduing Batshuayi, had the chance to remedy decisively. As it was the Belgian took his chance with aplomb, as he’s wont to do in games against us. Five in four games well publicised, five in 221 minutes – less than 2.5 games of active play – less so. He celebrated blowing kisses to the Rookery, no doubt in response to generous congratulations offered by the home end.

5- And here’s where Javi’s genius shone through like sunlight through a gap in the clouds. Could so easily have gone wrong here in so many ways and of course good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes and vice versa. But the whole of the home end must have been willing a change in personnel, something to stiffen up a midfield that was suddenly losing the battle. For me, something that involved Tom Cleverley giving us an extra body, settling things down, scurrying around after things, perhaps in place of the still listless Pereyra.

And yet Javi, as my co-editor energetically pointed out at the final whistle, held his nerve. Instead of hooking Pereyra he withdrew the tiring Will Hughes, who continues to echo Nick Wright in his willingness to charge around for 70 minutes before leaving the pitch barely able to walk. On comes Andre Gray to add his snarling, snapping menace to the proceedings.

You know the rest. Pereyra justified his place on the pitch with the most magnificent piece of football of the second half, simultaneously bloody minded and beautiful, burrowing his way out of tight attention and then clipping a perfect pass into Gray’s stride. You can criticise the defending, but it took an awful lot for that to be relevant… between them they unpeeled the defence and Gray capitalised sharply, his third winner off the bench in consecutive home games.

6- It wasn’t done. The remaining ten minutes contained plenty of hair wringing and angst…. Deeney drove in a shot, Guaita fumbled and the excellent Wan-Bissaka beat Deulofeu to the rebound. The same player snatched at Palace’s best chance at the other end, dragging a shot across the face of goal. And that was it, the last flailings of this particularly odious opponent before they descended into irrelevance and – we can hope – a relegation scrap.

Roars, bellows at the final whistle. Then loud, long salutes to the many heroes of the hour. To Javi. To Andre Gray. To Gomes. The last two clearly emotional. By the time you read this you’ll know who we’ll face in the semi in only three weeks time… that’s to come. Whoever we’ve drawn, it’s a Cup Semi at Wembley (yes, me too) and a chance to take a step closer to something quite historic for our ever more wonderful club.

Bring it on. Yoooorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 5, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 5, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 5*, Deeney 4
Subs: Masina (for Holebas, 45) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 77) 0, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 89) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Success, Dahlberg

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Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (03/03/2019) 03/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

1- I was tempted to begin at the end.

That’s what we’ll remember, after all. Those of us that were here today. For all that there was plenty of backstory, for all that this was a potentially significant game, for all that there was plenty to enjoy in what was a throbbing, vital, bass drum of a contest. All the detail is lost in the flailing limbs.

But I won’t start at the end. Else why would you read the rest of it?

And the beginning, strictly speaking, is Tuesday’s management announcement in Leicestershire which confirmed that for the third home game in a row we would be facing a former boss. The third of the three home games this calendar year incidentally versus nine away of which only two defeats, a figure distorted by cup draws and Spurs’ stadium nonsense… but these statistics which highlight how well the present incumbent is doing and how the identity and history of the Other Bloke only matters up to a point.

Nonetheless. Brendan Rodgers. Much-travelled since his nine months or so here, nine months that pale into a footnote versus what’s happened to both parties since. Nonetheless, we remember. And for what it’s worth, a slightly half-arsed boo to the invitation to greet our former boss, followed by some gently mocking chants when we remembered feels about right. Ten years is too long ago for the Silva treatment and anyway that was never really comparable. Rodgers did a fine job when he was here, much of the reaction on his departure was fuelled by disappointment, much of the rest by his preponderance for putting his foot in his mouth, his almost total lack of self-awareness, the David Brent/Alan Partridge thing. But we know what a basket case the club was then. It isn’t now. Neither of these things are/were down to Rodgers. For what it’s worth, his greatest crime in my book remains boasting about Tommy Smith wanting to join him at Reading despite not having permission to talk to the player; that Smith chose to leave him, and his unveiling press conference, in the lurch and join Pompey only slightly assuaged the dejection of seeing the twice Player of the Season move on. Oh, and being the first Watford manager younger than me. By ten days. Nobody should have to deal with that at the age of only 35.

2- It’s cold. And wet. On the plus side, at least it feels like March, in contrast to much of February feeling like June. Whatever other crazy shit is going down in the world and despite my lack of a scarf the weather has, at least for a moment, got back on track.

It’s tempting, of course, to read too much into the Rodgers thing… he’s only been there a matter of days. Nonetheless, thinking back ten years or so and remembering his uncompromising, ideological, some might say ambitious, others might say fundamentalist to the point of stupid attempts to turn Aidy Boothroyd’s rather spartan approach upside down overnight it’s interesting to note that he’s moved to a back three straight away. Every time Wes Morgan is wheeled out against us it feels like surely, surely the last time.

So, we don’t know how Rodgers will turn out for City. But beyond dispute that this probably isn’t a bad time to being playing them, all things considered and the potential for post-Puel bounce notwithstanding. Actually I’d half expected a more venomous single-minded early assault that we actually delivered; from the far end it looked rather as if Leicester’s defence seemed to cave in on itself under minimal pressure. By the time Troy put us ahead on five minutes, a fine header to a whipped Deulofeu cross, City were already visibly tentative. Mariappa forced Schmeichel into a block, Deulofeu’s follow-up was also deflected away as Morgan, Evans and Maguire started giving out hand-written invitations to come and have a go. Twice free kicks were conceded needlessly in threatening wide positions, the second of which yielding the goal.

3- But that’s an experienced bunch of centre-halves and however optimistic the ask of them City pulled themselves together and started stringing passes along. I was slightly disappointed at our failure to hold on to the initiative, to pin City back and not let them settle, but then again City haven’t changed enough over a week to have forgotten how to be a counterattacking side and Jamie Vardy will always, as we’ll see, love big open spaces to run into. There is, in short, a reason that Javi Gracia is Watford coach and I’m just waffling into a blog.

It says something that the three on-target efforts of the first half all came in the first five minutes. That’s a slightly misleading statistic, since both sides threatened more than this suggests; balls across the box that just needed a touch, that sort of thing. Nonetheless, City had a five man midfield against Watford’s four (which is effectively a five given the Doucouré/Capoue engine in the centre, to steal City’s N’Golo Kanté trope) and it all got rather congested. Much of City’s play was in classic death-by-football territory, passing the ball around until somebody gave the ball away (often Ben Chilwell, source of plenty of both good and bad things but often subdued by a monumental first half from Will Hughes).

However the threat was growing. If there’s an argument in favour of VAR (and I remain unconvinced on balance) it’s the existence of the likes of Jamie Vardy… so quick and so direct that he will always provoke situations which require officials to make a decision that they almost certainly aren’t in a position to make. Whether and how often Vardy exploits this to his advantage is almost moot – at that speed all it takes is a touch. The referee was fooled at their place in December, I was fooled here as Mariappa tripped Vardy. I saw no contact, I was wrong.

Harry Maguire endeared himself here by ludicrously demanding a red card of the official despite Vardy being half a mile from the goal and heading towards the corner flag when felled. Shortly afterwards Mapps redeemed himself in part by vanquishing Maguire’s threat decisively at the far post to loud cheers all round, and then propelled himself well into credit with a superhuman goal-saving defensive header, clearing a vicious left wing cross off of the forehead of Jonny Evans. With five or ten minutes to the break the visitors were threatening for perhaps the only sustained spell in the game; by the time the whistle went everything had calmed down. It being lunchtime I went and queued for food in the concourse for ten minutes, made minimal progress and returned to my seat for the second half empty handed.

4- That City only managed that one spell of sustained pressure until they briefly kitchen sinked it at the end says an awful lot for the defensive shape of our side. Many have said that Mariappa’s failings, particularly in possession, make him a position to upgrade in this team. This may be true but without doubt you’d always choose to have him around as an option, since this was a disciplined defensive team performance that wasn’t high on weak links for City to exploit. Yes, they over-elaborated. No, they rarely looked terribly like scoring despite their second half possession. But passing like that will find chinks in the end if you don’t concentrate.

The wild card in the second half was the refereeing of Jonathan Moss. It should be emphasised that the standard of refereeing in the Premier League is extremely high. We’ve been victim and beneficiary of some bizarre decisions but very few poor performances in stark contrast to, for example, the 1999-2000 season (Rob Harris, Uriah Rennie, Andy D’Urso and co. Shudder). However Moss, on repeated occasions, seems to be a bit of a throwback; the sort of overweight short-sighted buffoon cartoon depiction of a referee you used to see in Shoot! cartoons when I were a lad. Here, as previously, his tendency to tie himself to the centre-spot and linger behind the play was peppered with an absolute refusal to give Troy anything, no matter where Harry Maguire stuck his arms or what he did with them reached a crescendo in the middle of the half. Troy himself was booked for a challenge on Schmeichel that seemed, on one look, to owe rather more to Schmeichel being a goalkeeper than to the severity of the challenge, whereas both Doucouré and Deulofeu had been crudely taken out in unsuccessful attempts to curtail the attack that had broken to that point in challenges that went uncensored.

Our own attacks fizzed briefly, but with greater threat. A bewildering move down the left resulted in City’s now more resolute defence once again at sixes and sevens as Doucouré slugged a shot that Schmeichel beat away. Holebas embarked on an heroic, buccaneering charge down the left that ended with a cutback that didn’t quite have enough on it to reach Troy but earned a grinning salute from the skipper anyway.

And then, as yet another appeal from Troy as Maguire climbed all over him was waved away, it happened. The excellent Tielemans picked out a pass, Vardy was off, Mariappa was on a card but wasn’t catching him anyway. One all. Difficult to argue, much as it felt as if Moss’ officiating neutered our attempts to dominate City’s backline.

5- Even without what followed, Troy was the Man of the Match. This is his sort of thing of course, a physical contest against foes that aren’t quite as superhuman as Virgil Van Dyk. He would go on to cement his position by conducting a post-match interview, often his most testing opponent, in which he dismissed Moss as a buffoon implicitly whilst explicitly praising his performance. A work of art. He’d earlier garnished his afternoon by cheerfully acknowledging the visiting support’s predictable and perhaps understandable greeting.

But otherwise, and his lack of support from the officials notwithstanding, this was Troy in full effect. A monstrous beast of a performance. For all the “you fat bastard” chants he looks lighter this year, lither and more mobile. But he’s still unplayable on this form, his form since the start of the calendar year. A fine afternoon’s entertainment despite perhaps limited quality was afforded new lustre as Kaspar Schmeichel’s careless throw was intercepted by Doucouré who fed Deeney. With his back to the goal inside City’s half, with a marker in close attendance and without looking he played a through-ball over his shoulder to the onrushing Andre Gray. A big scrapper yes, but a delicate footballer too, deceptively so, still. Gray, who hadn’t quite tuned in up to this point, raced away and scored a Vardy goal, slipping the ball under the goalkeeper.

And there you are. There you have it. You’d watch a whole season worth of shit for moments like this, moments where the world explodes in joy and bodies fly past in happy abandon and your vision is obscured by twinkly lights and disorientation. The backstory, the context, the level of football make no difference. If you’re invested in a team there’s nothing like an injury time winner, and even in that context this explosion of everything was a belter.

And it upholds a proud tradition, of course. There are many sides I’d wish ill on above Leicester, but we don’t half enjoy a late winner against the Foxes. There’s this one, obviously. But this one was decent too. Oh and this one. And remember this one…?

Andre Gray’s name was yelled from the Rookery post-match, not before time. A huge result this, absolutely monstrous. In the context of “The Everton Cup”… our next two League games are at City and United. Any points a bonus really, going into them off two defeats – Cup Quarter Final in between or otherwise – not great. But now? We go into those games four points ahead of West Ham. Six ahead of Everton, Seven ahead of City, Nine ahead of Bournemouth, Ten ahead of Palace. And after those two games? Five of our remaining seven games at home, and plausibly winnable.

What a time to be alive.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4. Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 2, *Deeney 5*, Deulofeu 3
Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 69) 3, Cleverley (for Hughes, 90) 0, Masina, Kabasele, Quina, Success, Gomes