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Watford 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0 (18/01/2020) 19/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- The thing about going on a mental run like the one we’ve been on is that you suddenly expect to win every game.  Moderation, balance, goes out of the window.  “I’d take a point today” is a viewpoint I can rarely reconcile myself with at the worst of times, definitely not at the moment.

This feeling, this careless excitement and anticipation that every game will be a rout is a comforting, nostalgic thing.  This is how we used to view each game when we were kids…  partly because we were kids and, you know, that’s how kids view the world.  Partly because we had GT in charge and a rout was, if not  always a racing certainty then at the very least a possibility.

The third anniversary-ish of GT’s passing is a bright, cold day.  Spurs’ support is less wholeheartedly engaged in the scarf-lifting thing than their predecessors as visitors on this occasion in previous years have been.  We get a polite round of applause, but no scarves. Allowances need to be made, of course.  They’re Spurs fans after all.  Similarly disappointing is switching ends such that we’re both kicking towards the Rookery and into the lunchtime sun in the first half.

2- So much for a rout.  You can’t really implement such a thing without the ball, and we don’t see much of that for the first ten minutes or so.  Spurs are without a focal point in the absence of Kane, but they don’t need one to keep possession;  a rout will have to wait.

Relatively unacknowledged during our recent run, however, is our defensive form.  When you’ve got a potent attack you take the pressure off the backline of course, opponents have too much to think about to pile forward in numbers.  This helps.  But in any case, two goals conceded in six Premier League games since Anfield – and only one deflected effort from open play – is pretty extraordinary. “Nobody has kept more clean sheets in the Premier League this season” similarly remarkable. We stood up well to these early questions, and soon asserted ourselves.  Gerard Deulofeu against Serge Aurier looked like it had potential, and when left back Japhet Tanganga was booked for a clumsy foul on the escaping Ismaïla Sarr Spurs were in trouble.  It was a good foul for Spurs though, and a slightly fortunate outcome;  Tanganga was panicked rather than cynical, you rather doubt whether he know quite how close to the penalty area he was, or whether anyone was catching Sarr had he escaped the challenge, “clear goalscoring opportunity” or otherwise.

3- As the game settled down it was the Hornets who began to dominate, through a feature of the game that had been widely anticipated, specifically us kicking ten bells out of the visitors’ lightweight midfield.

One of the many spectacular and bizarre features of our turnaround has been the re-invigoration of that mercilessly effective area of the team.  Étienne Capoue’s level of performance has remained relatively high, relative at least to the lower bar set by many of his teammates, but Doucs had been a shadow of his intimidating best.  Since Pearson’s arrival the pair of them have rediscovered their collective mojo, they’re a monstrous weapon when they’re both on song.  As an aside, they could plausibly have been half a monstrous weapon late in the first half…  Capoue’s high tackle on Tanganga was clumsy rather than malicious but could certainly have been a yellow (or even a red from an excitable referee, a risky challenge anyway), but he followed this up with something that was later cited as worthy of the Paul Robinson scrapbook, ploughing into Lo Celso and earning his booking.  A five minute window to bear in mind next time we feel slightly aggrieved at a decision.

But then there’s Chalobah.  What a bloody joy it is that such a fine footballer, such a patently nice man is absolutely, finally, incontrovertibly not on a slow downward slope to a much more disappointing career than his ability and character deserve but is back on the conductor’s rostrum.  He has been afforded that possibility in part by circumstance and injuries and in part by his manager’s faith but whatever.  His performance level is accelerating dramatically and he’s a joy here, killing long passes with a touch, fooling his markers with a well-timed raising of an eyebrow and stepping away from a forest of legs with the ball.  Just wonderful.

4- So the game settles into a pattern.  Watford have territorial possession, but Spurs are always a theoretical threat, screaming out on the break with spins and twists.  This probably suits them in a way, given their lack of a striker and is reminiscent of how we tried to play at their place with Bobby and Deulofeu up front once Welbeck went off, but they’re just a little bit too potent for you to be comfortable sitting back and counterattacking yourselves.

Before the break there are chances at both ends;  Foster is out adroitly to smother at Moura’s feet, Troy should have done better with a Sarr cross than to head directly at Gazzanigga and then almost gets a lucky break, an unwitting deflection rolling just the wrong side of the post as the half ends.

Troy’s having fun though, as he tends to do against Alderweireld and Vertonghen.  His aerial superiority is such that he tends to be able to get good direction on his headers and as such perhaps its a nagging concern that we don’t make more of that, that Deulofeu doesn’t embarrass the hapless Aurier quite often enough, and particularly that Sarr having Tanganga on toast doesn’t lead to as many attempts on goal as it ought to.  Another post-match suggestion is that we could really use a poacher attacking the near post for some of these crosses.  Either way, Sarr is suddenly the most potent cutting edge of the team and is accelerating upwards…  stuff to be gotten right, rather than any gaping flaws.  He’s huge fun.

Spurs are always a threat, we’re never quite beating the door down.  The closest we come to doing so is in the build up to the penalty, given and largely undisputed for a handball by Vertonghen, which was coming by dint of weight of pressure.  It’s not a great penalty, very savable if the keeper goes the right way…  harsh to blame Troy really who more than pulls his weight throughout, but I’d always prefer he missed by absolutely spanking it if he’s going to miss at all.  Call me childish, but there’s great satisfaction in seeing the ball hit as hard as he did at Wembley.

Spurs come close themselves when Alli gets slightly underneath Son’s rapier cross, and then again when the Korean screams in from the right and slashes narrowly over.  But that we deprive Spurs of many clear chances is down to sterling defensive work, and no greater credit than to Adam Masina.  At the end of last season Masina was regarded as adequate cover for Jose Holebas, with the jury out on whether he had enough to establish himself as the long term successor.  Over the last few games, and much as Kiko was making hay out of position before his own injury, he’s begun to answer that question.  I thought he was the pick of an excellent bunch at Bournemouth (albeit from a viewing point in the Ship in Bedford rather than from Dorset) and he’s tremendous again here… athletic, attentive, brave and potent at both ends of the pitch.  Nige’s approach of not changing a successful team if he doesn’t have to ought to see Adam in situ for the foreseeable on this form.

5- There’s still time for an excitable debut for Ignacio Pussetto, a footnote to the most worrying development of the afternoon.  Sarr had visibly flagged, but chased back admirably to snuff out a Spurs break only to apparently pull a hamstring.  He didn’t look massively uncomfortable as he left the pitch, but even if he only misses Tuesday that’s a huge pain in the backside.

Pussetto, meanwhile, makes a startling first contribution by clearing from all-but-a-centimetre behind the line a scruffy, scrambled effort that would have changed the tone altogether.  As it is, we feel slightly less aggravated at two points lost, if only slightly.  Pussetto, meanwhile, can perhaps best be summed up as “needing time to get up to the speed of the game”, as his brief contribution suggests bravery without the ball but not an awful lot of robustness with it.  The game ends, Jose bleats about the Capoue and about a fictional penalty claim in the first half.  Nobody cares.

The most obvious conclusion is, “haven’t we come a long way to be going toe-to-toe with Spurs and being a bit narked at not beating them”.  And of course this is true.  And we haven’t lost and we’ve not lost ground and so on.  But there’s a risk here.

Comments on Twitter, where admittedly all possible opinions can be found if you look hard enough, suggest that this is already done.  Certainly Spurs fan Hus rolls his eyes at the suggestion that we’re still in trouble.  “You won’t go down playing like that” is the unspoken implication and he’s right, of course.

But while we’re playing “like this” we’ve got to win winnable games.  We’re playing strong mid-table football at worst at the moment, but that’s on top of half a season of, loosely, relegation form.  We’ve pulled ourselves up with the pack and are probably no longer anybody’s favourites to go down.  We’ll probably be OK.  But probably and definitely aren’t the same thing.

Fortunately there’s a monstrous trip to Villa Park on Tuesday to focus everyone’s attention.  See you there.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Mariappa 3, *Masina 4*, Dawson 4, Cathcart 3, Capoue 4, Chalobah 4, Doucouré 3, Sarr 4, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 4
Subs: Pereyra (for Chalobah, 79) NA, Pussetto (for Sarr, 89) NA, Holebas, Kabasele, Quina, Gray, Gomes

 

Watford 3 Tranmere Rovers 3 (04/01/2020) 05/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
15 comments

1- So.  The FA Cup again, then.  Given the mental scars inflicted in Wembley in May you may have considered whether this is all worth it, whether being tanked in a high profile game on global TV is much to aspire to.  Which… just goes to show that thinking about any of this too much doesn’t do any good. If we judged the value of this pursuit in our trophy haul rather than in the enjoyment of the journey, say, (Troy’s penalty in the semi anyone?) neither Watford nor Tranmere would have the followings that they do.

Winning the cup, or getting into Europe via our League position last season would have been particularly timely, mind.  Yesterday saw me reach 25 years with my employer (I celebrated the end of my first week with a trip to a notorious cup tie at Scarborough), and reaching this milestone comes with a significant financial windfall which could justifiably have been spent on frivolous trips to Norway, Lithuania or Belgium.  Ho hum.

Said employment sees me make regular trips to the Wirral… past Prenton Park and Birkenhead on the Mersey Rail. A vast horde have made loosely the reverse journey today, filling the “normal” away section and a significant proportion of the overspill of the Vicarage Road end afforded by FA Cup away allocation rules.  Thought number one is to ponder why Watford away is such a big pull for the support of a side struggling at the foot of League One, big respect in any case.  Thought number two is to ponder that most of those in the away end, even those over the age of 30, are probably completely oblivious of the significance afforded to what, to them, was probably a mundane away defeat here in 1999.  My god.  Thought number three is to wonder how many of our matchday squad weren’t even born in April 1999.  Answer:  eight.  Eight!  With Sarr and Callum Whelan babes in arms.  Thought number four is to Stop Thinking.

2- Nige isn’t messing about as far as the team’s concerned.  It’s the sort of side that many of us would have picked I think, given the desperate need to rest legs that have achieved high intensity wins with ten men twice over the last week but the limited options available in defensive positions in particular.  It looks fun.

Bachmann and Spencer-Adams make debuts and Dele-Bashiru a full debut, with the bench populated with kids of whom Sarr at 21 is both the veteran and the only one with League experience in the UK.  Bayli Spencer-Adams is perhaps the least anticipated; the former Arsenal youngster makes a nervous start, rushed into a sloppy clearance when charged down from the kick-off but settles down and does well.

It’s an untidy opening.  Proper untidy, piles of year-old discarded takeaway cartons and Channel 5 reality-TV shows untidy rather than the odd forgotten tea cup untidy.  But gradually we start to dominate possession and there seems to be a concerted effort to move the ball around, to get Tranmere running.

Tom Dele-Bashiru has already caught the eye.  His tight control is pretty extraordinary, he seems to roll around challenges with the ball in implausibly close proximity to his feet.  Twelve minutes in he’s afforded far too much space on the edge of the box and capitalises, a beautiful strike across the crowded penalty area.  He’s a long way down the pecking order and linked with a loan this window but doesn’t do himself any harm in this first half.

Two minutes later it’s two-nil as Nate Chalobah, who bosses the first half, capitalises on some sloppy Rovers defending to crash home.  Game over.  Fifteen minutes of comfortable possession later it’s three;  Isaac, who is slightly frustratingly fielded out wide rather than straight down the centre, has had a stinking first twenty minutes but gets the ball down here, drops a shoulder to fool his marker and surges goalwards.  He feeds Gray with a precise pass, the ball reaches Bobby Pereyra and it’s three-nil.

3- It’s easy to blame complacency, but there wasn’t a Watford supporter in the stadium who wasn’t wondering how many we might get at this stage.  Admittedly we’re not the ones being paid to do a professional job, we’re the ones paying for the right to come in and get all cocky about games against lower division opposition if such is our preference.  Nonetheless…  we were looking sharp and in control, and cutting through Rovers relatively easily.  We thought the job was done.  We all thought the job was done.

As it stood, the job was done.  So a couple of things changed.  Significantly we lost Nathaniel Chalobah at the break; a groin injury it transpired, one can only hope a precautionary move given that he didn’t obviously suffer during the half. Nate is probably the most vital of the starting eleven to the first team at the moment so we’d thought he was withdrawn to protect him with the match apparently safe.

The great cost was to the physicality of our midfield, so rarely an issue in the normal way with Caps and Doucs involved.  When Dom Quina, erratic with his distribution but combative and adept at burying into challenges, went off too we were left with a lightweight trio of the rather too dainty Dele-Bashiru, the busy but slight Callum Whelan and a rather passive Roberto Pereyra.

The other big change was the visitors’ demeanour.  Any number of flavours of capitulation would have been predictable at this stage;  instead they took advantage of a less focused, less ruthless approach from the Hornets and seemed to figure that they had nothing to lose.  In the first half it was clear that they were better at going forward than defending;  more fool us for allowing the game to gravitate towards the areas of the pitch that they were good at.

That first half had seen veteran centre back Peter Clarke come closest, crashing a far post header narrowly wide from a set piece.  Clarke, as an aside, is one of an odd trio of players on Rovers’ books (midfielder Perkins and the injured Ishmael Miller the other) to have faced us together both for Huddersfield and for Blackpool, including the memorable 7-2 win in the promotion season.  Rovers’ midfield trio, also featuring 38 year-old Neil Danns, had an average age of 34 and I’d expected this to count against them as the second half drew on.

Instead their physicality helped them – many of their players were broad, solid and rectangular – and when the game started to trundle away from us we were unable to obstruct it sufficiently.  The youngster in Rovers’ midfield, 28 year-old Connor Jennings, grabbed a header.  Then Daniel Bachmann, who had had a decent enough debut up to this point, spilled a cross and in the mess that followed the enormous Manny Monthé, who had battered the ineffectual Andre Gray throughout and is reportedly a January target of Kenny Jackett at Pompey, turned in a second.

Our young team began to feel the effects of cramp on their untested legs – Spencer-Adams and Quina had both been withdrawn, the former replaced by another youngster, Mason Barrett.  His rash challenge on the edge of the box was, like Rovers’ first, studied at length by VAR but such was the momentum of the half that the penalty’s (correct) award, reversing the referee’s award of a corner, felt as inevitable as Paul Mullin’s conversion.  The away end went mental.

4- A sideshow in the second half was the debut of the long-awaited João Pedro, whose signing had been arranged in October 2018 and was finally completed on his turning 18 and being afforded a work permit.

I was reminded of a trip to Gresty Road in 2001; pre-match, Crewe fan Kev, when asked about 17 year-old Dean Ashton, already pulling up trees, suggested “well you’d serve him in a pub, put it that way”.  Our Brazilian isn’t quite a man mountain but he’s tall and leggy and powerful for such a young man.  Raw, certainly, but not that raw… confident enough to fly into challenges, strong enough to hold people off.  When Isaac Success, one of few to impress in the second half, roared down the centre and released him down the left, João Pedro stepped neatly inside and fired a shot towards the bottom corner that was deflected narrowly wide by a stray heel.  Quite mouthwatering skill.

Later he switched to the right and fried his Tranmere marker in the area, pushing the ball one side and running the other to the approval of the Rookery.  He’s a young lad in a new country, yes yes.  Raw and inexperienced, yes yes.  But don’t be surprised to see him on the bench regularly between now and the end of the season on this evidence.

5- The biggest frustration, pending diagnosis of Nate’s groin injury, was the red card afforded to Bobby Pereyra which is likely to rule him out for Bournemouth and Spurs as well as the replay.  Not obvious what had happened at the time, only his lack of protest calmed objections from the stands.  On replay there’s a stroppy kick at his marker – unprofessional, unnecessary.  The dismissal a bit harsh, but not harsh enough to be overturned on appeal though I don’t doubt we’ll give it a go.

The game ended with Adam Masina – who did as good a job of any of the senior players of dragging the team along by its bootstrings in the aggravating second half – putting a set piece over.

A replay, then.  Frustrating, irritating.  Sloppy and unnecessary but neither the end of the world nor a foregone conclusion. Another opportunity for fringe players to impress, one suspects, though we could do with a little more physical presence – Troy on the bench, for example, would be no great surprise at Prenton Park.

In the meantime, another massive league fixture in Dorset on Sunday.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Mariappa 3, Dawson 3, Spencer-Adams 3, Masina 4, *Chalobah 4*, Quina 3, Dele-Bashiru 3, Pereyra 2, Success 3, Gray 2
Subs: João Pedro (for Chalobah 45) 3, Whelan (for Quina, 61) 2, Barrett (for Spencer-Adams 77) NA, Sarr, Dalby, Hungbo, Parkes

Watford 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 (01/01/2020) 02/01/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
11 comments

1- I’ve managed to avoid 606 for a long time.  If there’s not a 5.30 match commentary to fill the hour’s drive home post-match there are podcasts.  Or, you know, silence.  Or opening a window and screaming into the wind.  Any of which are significantly more enjoyable than an inane call-in show.

But I caught a bit of 606 this evening, jumping between stations.  A Spurs fan babbling about not very much, chanced upon some rare insight.  Monkeys, typewriters and so on.  “Spurs are like a ghost of the team of last season, or of the season before….”.

I don’t give a shit about Spurs.  Nobody, perhaps not even Spurs fans, gives a shit about Spurs.  But the phrase is a good one, and describes what we’ve been watching for much of this campaign.  An echo, a ghost of last season’s team – bits of things that look familiar but ineffective, incomplete.  Something you thought you saw, thought you recognised, but then it’s gone again and you question whether it was ever really there at all.

Nige has reanimated that ghost.  And it’s no wispy, semi-transparent spectre.  There’s nothing eerie about this.  Nothing chilling and ethereal.  This is a no-shit poltergeist, throwing plates around, smashing up the furniture.  Nothing half-arsed here.  This ghost is suddenly more real than its original incarnation.  And it’s bloody brilliant.

2- This is my nephew Emmu’s first football game.  He’s six.  Today is quite possibly the most exciting thing EVER and he seems to be on a mission to not blink for the duration.  If there’s going to be a ghost materialising by a corner flag during a quiet passage in play, you can bet your life Emmu’s going to be all over it.

And he sees a strong start.  Nige has once again only made enforced changes despite the recent flood of fixtures.  Dawson in at right back for the suspended Mapps, his first Watford outing in the position he most frequently filled for West Brom in the top flight.  Chalobah in for Hughes, finally earning another start. We’re trying to take it to them.  We’re aggressive and punchy, but it doesn’t feel like battering a paper bag like against Villa four days ago.  Wolves are resilient, and soon begin to dominate possession.

It could have been a very different game of course.  Fine margins.  One day, when we’re comfortably clear of the drop zone, perhaps when our safety is assured, perhaps when our safety is assured by a margin that would accommodate a points deduction on the basis of Étienne Capoue being too f***ing cool it would be interesting to see how we cope with being behind again.  Maybe.  As an intellectual exercise.

As it is, we avoid that indignity but there’s not much in it.  Particularly when Matt Doherty does that thing where he smuggles himself unseen from right wing-back to centre forward by virtue of some hidden sub-pitch tunnel.  Coady’s through ball peels us right open and we should be behind, but Ben Foster makes his thirty-second critical save of the last fortnight.

Minutes later Raúl Jiménez drags a shot wide.  I’m distracted by daughter 2 asking about the distinction between orange and yellow luminous jackets on ground staff, but it’s a sloppy finish from the Mexican.  Again, the game could have gone differently here.

3- So no, we’re not going to find out how adept we are at coming from behind today, but we do get plenty of new insights.  First, Wolves are not a flabby, shapeless United and they’re not a brittle, limited Villa.  They’re a very decent side and they’re going to dominate possession for most of the game.

But suddenly.  Suddenly after months of having no threat whatsoever we are strong enough and potent enough to take Wolves’ punches and to come back with jabs of our own.  It’s like that scene in Superman 2 (ask your parents, kids) where Zod expects Supe to kneel before him and gets more than he bargains for.  Some sloppy Wolves play, but only a bit sloppy, only commentworthy because Sarr is onto it and Gerry is gone and he opens his body up and finishes brilliantly.   And then he’s taking a ball slightly too early and getting underneath it, firing over but it could have been two.  And then Sarr is off again, dancing onto a Troy pass and holding off two markers and flicking beautifully, narrowly wide.  It deserved a goal for artistry, impudence, comic timing.  It could have been three.

We have an attack.  And by god we have a midfield.  Capoue is stamping all over everything again.  Lyon?  They could mortgage the whole bloody city and not be anywhere close.  Doucs has refound his mojo and the two of them are, as Troy has said, as good as three midfielders between them.  Which releases Nathaniel Chalobah, a fine fine footballer but without perhaps the natural arrogance of his two colleagues, a platform to dance on.   All three are magnificent.

And the back?  The back is holding out.  The back, it turns out, will be a deflection away from a third home clean sheet on the trot.  Key here is Kiko, whose metamorphosis from a fun but slightly flaky right back into a hard-ass left back is exemplified by his bottling up of Adama Traoré.  Traoré is suddenly the extraordinary physical specimen with no end product that we all understood prior to this season, prior to him seemingly becoming a footballer. He’s not permitted an end product today.

The point is that it’s not just a case of a couple of players getting fit, or of Nige sorting out the defence, say, or of one or two finding a bit of form.  Everything looks brilliant.  The big players are playing and – get this – the fringe players are suddenly awesome too.  Chalobah, Kiko, yes, but also Masina who is going to come off the bench and kick what needs kicking late on.  The whole thing suddenly works.  It’s like having too much oxygen.

4- Wolves might have had a plan at the start of the second half but it doesn’t have time to have any impact.  Gerry is dancing through again and finding Doucs and he absolutely spanks it and we get our own helpful deflection that Neto will balance out later and it’s 2-0 and Doucs is beyond delighted.  It’s joy in the stadium, it’s catharsis on his face.

Wolves make two changes, mix their personnel around but almost simultaneously we’re forced into one ourselves as Kiko twists something and goes down.  It doesn’t look good.  Whilst having Holebas back in the fold after a month is great and he does his agitation thing to a tee, he hasn’t got Kiko’s pace and Traoré starts to cut loose.  Almost immediately Neto, who had been booked for the second of two tumbles in the penalty area in the first half, cashes in his deflection which sends his shot beyond Foster.

Wolves bring on Jota, a far bigger nuisance than his moderate goal tally this season suggests he ought to be, and within minutes he’s wriggling free.  Kaba takes him down, we hold our breath.  It’s only yellow.  Then it isn’t.

It’s one he could have rather than should have gotten away with.  As far as VAR is concerned, the only thing the episode proves absolutely is the fallacy of technology being able to sort problems out, since there are a multitude of interpretations of this incident.  And they’re all painfully dull.  Beyond dispute is that we have a hell of a job on.

5- Would you have taken a point at this stage?  I wouldn’t, but then I never would under any circumstances.  A reasonable, rational evaluation would have done.  A goal up but a man down against an excellent side capable of using the ball well, a side who specialise in late goals at the best of times?  In a christmas period in which we’ve already got a decent couple of wins?  A draw wouldn’t have been a disaster.

How has this happened?  How, from being less than the sum of our parts, so much less, have we become this?

We’ll draw a veil over the final twenty minutes.  Twenty minutes of bloody-mindedness, bodies thrown in the way, discipline, nerves, sore throats, fist punching, defiance.  It features Ismaïla Sarr, whose strength is as striking as his speed, emulating Gifton Noel-Williams’ efforts of twenty-one years ago by taking part in a game of keep ball in the corner before being slowed down by his team mates as he makes his away across to be subbed.  Troy is booked for time wasting, slightly harshly.  Ben is booked for time wasting, less harshly.  Wolves huff and puff, Foster saves from Doherty.  And it’s done.

This is a quite ridiculous win.  Yes yes, Wolves have had a sapping couple of games, a small squad, a tough schedule.  But they’re still a very good side, in good form.  It’s extraordinary.  And it leaves us, instead of nine points from safety before United, eight points from Arsenal, who are top half.

We need to keep winning, obviously.  That’s the thing about coming from so far behind, you need to start winning and keep winning.  But nobody in the stadium today will doubt our ability to do so.  Least of all Nuno Espirito Santo who graciously conceded his side’s inferiority but his eyes looked hollow.

Almost as if he’d seen a ghost.

Yooorns.

 

Foster 5, Dawson 4, Femenía 5, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, *Capoue 5*, Chalobah 5, Doucouré 5, Sarr 4, Deulofeu 5, Deeney 4
Subs: Holebas (for Femenía, 60) 4, Masina (for Deulofeu, 72) 4, Pereyra (for Sarr, 92) NA, Gray, Quina, Success, Gomes