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Watford 2 Wycombe Wanderers 0 (03/03/2021) 04/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa and is football mad.  All (English) Premier League games are available on pan-African satellite channels, bars are busy (were busy…) whenever the games are on.  I’ve never been surrounded by a more fervent TV crowd than when watching Man United play Barcelona in a Champions League game in Addis Ababa.

Unfortunately, the national team is a bit rubbish.  Ranked 42nd in Africa, never made the World Cup finals, only one African Cup of Nations qualification since 1982 when, in 2013, they finished bottom of their group in South Africa with a single point to their name.

Opportunities to watch the national side are naturally a bit thin on the ground here in the UK, but at around the same time as their South African adventure, the Ethiopian side got within a play-off of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil having topped their qualification group ahead of South Africa.

A two-legged tie against Nigeria ensued.  Ethiopia would lose both legs, but their team was fascinating, unlike any African team I’d ever seen.  They were much smaller, physically, than their West African opponents but they flowed around them like water.  Elegant, fluid, athletic and nimble, they were occasionally breathtaking.

Unfortunately their defending was clueless.

2- Philip Zinckernagel would have a job on passing as Ethiopian in any other respect, but his cameos to date have suggested that he wouldn’t have looked out of place in that side.  Deftness of foot, mouthwatering crosses and a dynamism that oils attacks has been offset by a lack of robustness and a startling lack of defensive awareness and intelligence.  Bad, often expensive decisions.

This was his first League start, a development probably accelerated by Nathaniel Chalobah’s suspension, Dan Gosling’s injury and Daniel Phillips’ disappearance from consideration, but you’d rather have had him further forward (as far away from our goal as possible) and probably in place of the visibly fatigued Ken Sema.

His opening few minutes were erratic…  some nice touches in early moves, then a minute later ploughing needlessly through the back of Uche Ikpeazu to concede a free kick on the edge of the box.  On the upside you wouldn’t have predicted that he had it in him to take down the massive Wycombe target man, fairly or otherwise.  On the downside he was going to need to go some to convince that he was worth the risks he was presenting to the team.

And in fairness, it did get better.  There was more welcome evidence of a greater degree of toughness and doggedness than has been suggested hitherto.  Occasionally beautiful touches that oiled a fledgling move. A sweeping crossfield pass to release Sarr late in the half.  We’ll come to the assist, obviously.  Still peppered with some ropey old decision making from time to time… but personally for all his deficiencies I came out of this one much more positive about the value of our January recruit.

3- The other eye-catching addition to the eleven was Andre Gray, starting his first game for almost a month in the absence of the suspended João Pedro.  Not a given that he’d get the nod I don’t think, but fourteen minutes in he made a mockery of his meagre form this season by clinically finishing off a move that, like so many, rolled down the right wing via Kiko and the irrepressible Sarr.  No surprise, I guess, that a striker should enjoy playing in a confident attacking side creating plenty of chances more than he does the constipated Watford team that he struggled in front of for much of the season, but nonetheless.  Surprising how easy he made it look, suddenly.  In common with our best moves at the moment, particularly down that flank, we looked mercilessly precise.

The visitors had begun as advertised – honest, dogged and robust, ceding the midfield almost entirely and dropping numbers deep.  After the goal however their defensive discipline seemed to desert them entirely and the biggest stain on our performance is that we didn’t make more of the gaping chasms that we were permitted to wander through.

Two minutes after the goal Cleverley’s shot was deflected wide after he found an obscene amount of abandoned ground just outside the box.  A few minutes later Cleverley fed Sarr, Jacobson denying him with a hooked last-ditch challenge.  Zinckernagel broke through on the left but overran.  Bachmann sent a jaw-dropping ball through to Sarr, Jacobson got away with a desperate grab that Sarr tried to exaggerate.  All within ten minutes of the goal.

Having not capitalised, it was slightly alarming that without coming terribly close to scoring the visitors were causing anxiety in our box just by looking at it curiously.  The 23rd minute saw an aimless ball being negligently allowed to bounce around in the penalty area. Horgan began to outmuscle Masina.  Sierralta had his hands full – sometimes literally – with Uche Ikpeazu.  The half ended with Zinckernagel releasing Sarr, Stockdale denying Gray a second by intercepting a cross.  We were comfortably the better side, but not comfortably ahead.

4- Wycombe were still in it, somehow, and clearly had a rocket up them at the break since they came at us more aggressively and forcefully at the start of the second period.  At the back of your mind was the knowledge that we weren’t half going to feel silly if the visitors clawed their way back into it given the imbalance of the first half chances.  We were a tight offside call from being in exactly that place as Wheeler’s sharp finish to Tafazolli’s flick-on was denied.

We looked ponderous and laborious.  Ripe for the mugging, perhaps, until we scored again and put all doubt to bed.  And here’s the moment that really earns Zinc his positive write-up.  There’s plenty of mitigation in place already…  he’s come from a very different League into a well-established team in an unusual environment, he’s allowed to take time to settle. But all of that aside, this assist buys him an awful lot of rope.  On two separate occasions, one in the first half and one later in the second, he’d find himself space for a potshot without managing to put it anywhere near the goal.  Here he seemed to be after the same, before with a conjuror’s slight-of-movement, a slight-of-movement that echoed Almen Abdi’s finest moments, he slipped the ball past a Wycombe defence that had been watching the wrong hand.  Once again, having been successfully smuggled beyond enemy lines, Gray dispatched with a startling lack of fuss.  Quite, quite brilliant.

5- There were still Moments at each end.  Hughes fed Sema who slammed a ball across the face.  Zinckernagel thumped a shot at Stockdale, Gray overhead-kicked the rebond towards Sarr who fired over.  Ikpeazu barrelled his way towards the byline in a manner that echoed Tommy Mooney against Bristol Rovers, but at a quarter of the speed. The hugely effective Jacobson sent in a couple of set pieces.  It never felt in doubt though.

A solid, uncomplicated win that was much needed following Saturday’s bump in the road.  The only real negative – beyond irritating developments in Stoke and Bristol where Swansea and Bournemouth would both go behind and enjoy some fortune in recovering three points – was an injury to Tom Cleverley that saw him limp off after apparently trying to play on after twisting his leg.  With Nate – and Dan, presumably – still missing on Saturday we have a bit of a personnel issue in the middle of the pitch.  Carlos Sánchez’s negotiating position just got a bit stronger, one suspects.

There’s a long way to go still in what looks to be a race every bit as tight as the one in 2015.  The way the fixtures fall, however, puts great emphasis on the forthcoming, relatively gentle set of fixtures.  Pick up some speed and we head into the big games after Easter with momentum.  Fail to deliver and we’ll be needing to make up points from a run that will look a lot more daunting.

With a fifth win in six, we’re doing OK.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 4, Sierralta 4, Masina 3, Hughes 4, Cleverley 3, Zinckernagel 4, *Sarr 4*, Gray 4, Sema 3
Subs:  Ngakia (for Femenía, 75) 3, Hungbo (for Sema, 84) NA, Perica (for Gray, 84) NA, Wilmot (for Cleverley, 86) NA, Cathcart, Barrett, Success, Pochettino, Elliot

Comments»

1. Ray Knight - 04/03/2021

Luv the Ethiopian football knowledge Matt. Decided not to post after the Muff debacle, as so annoyed by our lack of discipline. This seemed more routine but on the other hand WW still provided danger. Much better from Gray. PZ is getting better. Agree that Sema looked tired. Sarr was a cut above apart from some woeful shooting. Very annoyed by the referee. Masina took three leading elbows to the head and was quite dazed by the second one. Definite penalties for both sides in either half (Sarr for us) not given. I do moan about VAR decisions so you can’t have it both ways. Agree we need to build momentum. I think it’s a positive we play our rivals in the final few games. It could mean we still control our own destiny. COYHs!

2. sptemple - 04/03/2021

Nice magician’s analogy for Zinkernagel, although I’m not comfortable putting him forward as the next Abdi at the moment! Zinkernagel needs time – we all know how tough a league the Championship is.

On a separate note, I’m sure I read that Dan Phillips has a hamstring strain.

Matt Rowson - 04/03/2021

Steady. I said the through ball was reminiscent of Abdi, that’s all. Phillips… not heard that, but would make sense.

3. Old Git - 04/03/2021

Talking of penalty decisions, that one Swansea got last night was a shocker. Blatant cheating, aided and abetted by a gullible referee. Let’s hope whoever is in charge of our forthcoming match against Swansea is aware of their Bournemouth-like antics. My Stokie friend John has been up all night seething, just when he was beginning to calm down after that ‘goal’ we scored against them at the Vic.

Nashinho - 04/03/2021

Ah yes: that “goal”! As Ayew stuck away the penalty last night my son and I agreed that we can’t really complain can we?

4. Harefield Hornet - 04/03/2021

Have to say I wasn’t that impressed by PZ initially last night but he grew into the game and I loved the killer pass for Gray’s second. Gives us something a bit different. Looks thankfully like Clevs injury isn’t quite as bad as we feared but he’ll be sorely missed for the next four games or so. Hammers fans are rolling with laughter following Sanchez’s arrival at the Vic but they were also moaning like hell when Craig Dawson arrived and look how that’s turned out! Let’s hope he proves those most knowledgable academy of football experts wrong – again!


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