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Cardiff City 1 Watford 2 (13/03/2021) 14/03/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- I liked Ray Lewington.

In some ways, despite the manifold challenges that peppered his time in charge I enjoyed it more than Aidy Boothroyd’s ostensibly more successful spell that followed.  These things always look different from a distance of course and in hindsight there was plenty – albeit largely different things – to enjoy about both.  Certainly the sense of everyone pulling together in the wake of the challenges presented by the particularly badly timed and badly judged investments in Gianluca Vialli’s squad followed by the collapse of ITV Digital was something good to be part of.  I find conflict amongst ‘orns particularly difficult.

But I liked Ray Lewington.  Honest, trustable.  Inspiring, too. Before we played Portsmouth in the quarter finals of the League Cup in late 2004, an intimate fans forum was held in the old Hornet Shop in the back of the Rookery Stand.  No grumbling or nit-picking at this one, the tone was one of edgy excitement at the prospect of taking another top-flight scalp.

My question to Ray was on the subject of the opposition.  Yakubu, it had been reported, was injured.  Did Ray think that this, combined with a lack of pace elsewhere in Pompey’s forward line, would limit their attacking potential?

He paused for dramatic effect but then looked straight at me with half a twinkle in his eye as he growled “it doesn’t matter what they do…”.  I grinned sheepishly.  Inside I was standing on the table bellowing and beating my chest.  We won the tie 3-0.

2- It doesn’t matter what they do.  Nonetheless, this was a daunting prospect even before Brentford and Swansea held onto single-goal victories to shove us back down into fourth as the game kicked off.

Cardiff was the game I managed to get a ticket for back in that little window when such things were allowed a bit.  They strong-armed us that day but Neil Harris was gone eight weeks later.  Since Mick McCarthy arrived the Bluebirds have been undefeated in eleven and to their abrasive aggression has been added a conscientious discipline which, along with the confidence of a long unbeaten run, makes them a formidable opponent.

Nothing that happened in the first ten minutes or so here allayed those concerns.  City’s first corner was awarded twenty seconds in;  a minute later Sarr gave away a left wing free kick as the hosts gave every impression of being masters of their art… closing down high up the pitch, asking questions of goalkeeper and centre-backs with corners, free-kicks, long throws into a crowded box full of tall blokes with ponytails, headbands and other various lockdown hair constructions.  It felt as if it was going to be a long afternoon as the ferocious, swirling wind contributed to the air of a chaotic battlefield.

Sean Morrison, one of those whose unruly mop at Vicarage Road had developed into a ponytail here, was called to the referee with Francisco Sierralta after some early scuffles in the Watford box.  Close in attendance was Nate Chalobah, the “(cap)” after his name having been the most striking detail of a positive team selection.  He took his responsibilities seriously, a more proactive captain than any other than Troy, and rather than this development detracting from his performance he seemed to flourish with the responsibility.

Just as striking, ten minutes in, was that as soon as we navigated the aggressive press and found ourselves in stiller waters in City’s half we caused no end of problems.  Zinckernagel’s performance was again to combine moments of breathtaking deftness with moments of breathtaking daftness but the balance is more favourable game by game;  he danced towards the penalty area and caused havoc.  Kiko and Sarr combined down the right (no, really…), Kiko pulled a cross back, City defenders fell over.

City broke again as an intensely watchable contest developed its rhythm.  William Troost-Ekong, who looked unnerved by both the conditions and by Cardiff’s directness, slipped to let in Murphy who skated down Cardiff’s left with Will Hughes trailing in his wake.  Daniel Bachmann hurtled out, Murphy took a heavy touch and we were spared but only for a minute; once again Murphy was free on the left and he put an undefendable ball across the face of goal.  Sierralta stuck out a boot with Kieffer Moore hovering behind him and propelled the ball into his own net.

3- So, so significant that we struck back straight away.  A bit of luck that the opportunity presented itself but we forced our own luck, not for the last time.  With the wind behind them, a lead to defend and their tails up Cardiff could have taken the game in a different direction altogether.  We never gave them the chance.  Kiko burst down the right, the ball rattled around the penalty area, Zinckernagel forced a ricochet that found Chalobah.

There were references to the mythical “pre-injury” Chalobah on social media within minutes.  The pre-injury Chalobah who straddled Marco Silva’s midfield magnificently after returning permanently from Chelsea, only lasted five games – your memory does strange things with time.  But this was the match of anything we’ve seen from him since, dancing from one foot to the other like a matador before slicing a shot through the gap he’d created and definitively reclaiming control of the game.  “Stay cool”, he’d shouted as we’d kicked off again thirty seconds earlier, before walking the walk, ice in his veins. Quite, quite magnificent.

We never looked back. What followed was far from one way traffic… until the very end, the nature of Cardiff’s threat was such that there was always a risk. But whilst doubt had been dismissed from Watford minds before it had had the chance to take root it infected and upset the home side, whose conviction dissipated throughout the game.  Within ten minutes Sema headed a Sarr delivery down at the far post for João Pedro to athletically scissor an overhead shot straight at City keeper Phillips.  Sema drove into the box and laid the ball towards the Brazilian who flicked over.

We looked deft and intricate and confident.  Sema burrowed down the left wing but having seen his route blocked was assured enough to turn back down the flank, retain possession, find Masina and see his bold low cross reach Sarr who forced a fine save from Phillips. We were well on top… Chalobah was fouled and Cardiff arms were flung in Kevin-and-Perry frustration (one for the kids there…).  Bachmann came hurtling out to take out Kieffer Moore – a yellow card but a blow struck for the goalkeeper’s union, the boot so often on the other foot (or elbow).  Zinckernagel almost slipped Sarr in as the half time whistle blew with the only concern being that we weren’t already ahead.

4- The second half was never quite as flamboyant.  The home side occasionally asked questions, Watford provided answers; on the hour Kieffer Moore emerged from Sierralta’s pocket for long enough to get on the end of an Aden Flint knockdown to smash the ball over but these were the dying embers of the threat that Cardiff had suggested at the start of the game.

They’d tightened up though, and whilst we were on top our chances were limited, more peripheral.  Sema popped up on the right and sent a cross in for Sarr to head too close and too gently to threaten Phillips.  Sierralta flicked on a Zinckernagel free kick, it wouldn’t fall for João Pedro. Kiko flew down the right, Chalobah knocked down his cross, Sarr sliced wide.  It started to hail.

5- As the game entered its final ten minutes, as you were reflecting that a point away at Cardiff wasn’t a bad result all things considered, things got a bit tetchy for the first time;  up to this point it had been aggressive but not snide or narky.

Aden Flint was at the centre of much of it.  Not beloved of Tommy Mooney on comms (“he’s brilliant in the air, but my postman’s better than him on the deck”) he nonetheless fashioned a scissor kick of sorts on 82 minutes before drawing a reaction and a booking from Sierralta by pulling his topknot out of sight of the officials.  On 88 minutes Will Vaulks drove in a firm low shot forcing a competent but straightforward save from Daniel Bachmann, significant because this was the first shot on target managed by an opponent against us since Arnaut Danjuma scored for Bournemouth over a fortnight and more than three ninety minutes ago.  Which is ridiculous.  Kiko fed Sarr in the box, Sarr went down but it was a “you’ve seen them given” rather than a clear pen.

So… yes.  I was in “a draw’s not bad” space. Ismaïla Sarr could have been forgiven, perhaps, for being in the same place after a difficult game in which he’d been buffeted around for ninety minutes to limited effect.  Never has his transformation from sulky kid to force of nature over the course of the season been more starkly illustrated than here, his bullishness in taking on two markers, cutting between them and drawing a free kick, the free kick fundamental in how the game ended, as vital as Chalobah’s artful finish earlier or… as what happened next.

Heaven knows we’ve come not to expect too much from free kicks. Five years and so on and so forth.  There have been likelier candidates to break our duck in the interim than Adam Masina.  Roberto Pereyra perhaps.  Tom Cleverley.  Zinckernagel. Troy, even.  As he lined it up I was hoping for a touch off the bodies flying across the face of the goal.  As he ran up it occurred to me that if this went in we were definitely going up.  Masina absolutely smacked it straight at the keeper but Phillips was distracted with bodies running at and past him.  The shot went straight through…

6- A superficial, highlights assessment might conclude that we were lucky.  Lucky that the goalkeeper screwed up, gifting us the game.  Not a bit of it.  There’s nothing “lucky” about winning a game because an opponent screwed up.  Daniel Bachmann didn’t screw up when more severe questions had been asked of him.  Having a good goalkeeper isn’t “luck”.

But more than that, we’d earned that luck.  Earned the right for it to matter by clawing back an equaliser, by taking control of the game, by the sapping of our opponents’ belief and by Sarr having the self-confidence to turn and run at two defenders in the dying minutes.

Everything exploded.  Everywhere.  Seven hours on my throat is still raw.  Bellows were bellowed in living rooms and offices of a Watford persuasion across the country.  Limbs were flung with wild and graceless abandon. On the pitch, briefly, it threatened to kick off as Francisco Sierralta exacted revenge with a tug on Aden Flint’s top knot; Adam Masina did his best bit of blocking off of the afternoon to curtail any further unpleasantness (João Pedro quickly on the scene, shock).

But the explosion of joy at the win was about more than just a dramatic late winner.  It was every inch a team, a squad, that’s in it together.  Achraf Lazaar, a Hornet for less than a month and on the pitch for less than half an hour in total, was going nuts like it was the best thing that’s ever happened ever.  There was a ferocious bundle of players, subs, staff, and a beaming Xisco in the middle of it.  This was massive.

Elsewhere Brentford, Swansea will have been disappointed by the news.  On the south coast, Bournemouth were losing at home to Barnsley (perhaps we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the goings on at mid-table sides any longer?).  But all of that’s irrelevant.  This is all about us.  Nobody’s stopping this lot.

It doesn’t matter what they do.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 4, Femenía 5, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 5, Masina 4, Hughes 4, *Chalobah 5*, Zinckernagel 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs: Success (for Sema, 77) NA, Gray (for Zinckernagel, 86) NA, Sánchez (for Chalobah, 86) NA, Ngakia, Lazaar, Wilmot, Cathcart, Hungbo, Foster

Many many thanks to those who have donated to Prostate Cancer UK following my post last week.  I’m averaging 12.5k steps per day and I’m dead on my feet… you can still sponsor here if you’re so inclined.

Comments»

1. Harefield Hornet - 14/03/2021

You’re absolutely spot on! I celebrated that goal
Yesterday like no other this season! What surprised me yesterday was that despite their reputation they were developing for set pieces and the run they had been on, I personally never really felt they would get anything – I’ve been far more nervous from set plays against other opponents this season. Apart from that opening 10 minutes it seemed for the first time this season out destiny lies in our own hands. Telling that all McCarthy could comment on after was the pantomime events after the final whistle and how he thought we had over – celebrated. He didn’t want to talk about the match itself because he knew they’d been outplayed by a much better team.

2. davejackson - 14/03/2021

“…breathtaking deftness… breathtaking daftness “
Your use of the English language is as marvellous as Chalobah’s footwork.
Thanks for another excellent report.

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2021

Cheers Dave 😊

3. Mike Smith - 14/03/2021

Great report Matt. Summed up superbly with your thoughts. Perhaps not the right forum but I watched some of L***n against Swansea. Never thought I’d be cheering for them! Swansea were pathetic. How on earth are they up there (that’s a rhetorical question, cos we all know why). the scummers created loads of chances but couldn’t score. Interesting game at the Vitality on Tuesday!

4. NickB - 14/03/2021

The closing sentiments remind me of the fearsomely bullish views about the promotion race that Dave M espoused on Friday’s Facebook thing. I was tempted to downgrade them a bit then as laudable but slightly exaggerated patriotism. I’m not anymore.

5. Ants - 14/03/2021

Blasted the roof into orbit with my bellow on Masina’s goal. Brilliant moment. Brilliant day. Away from the football, though, just want to say that your writing has been getting better and better over the years. And you had a pretty damn fine line or two way back on BSad.

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2021

Cheers Ants. You’d kind of hope so, there’s been enough of it… but good of you to say so.

6. David - 14/03/2021

After the Coventry draw it emotionally and statistically looked as if 6th place would be the best we could hope for. There was simply no way this team could win enough games to do anything better. We need another 7/8 wins which still feels a stretch to far but Swansea/Brentford can’t keep winning can they?

Clearly it’s GT first but Ray Lewington is the best of the rest.

7. Ian (Royston ROF) Dell - 14/03/2021

From your wording, I believed you really enjoyed putting this piece together nearly as much as the match itself..

..my taking of events…something we are are always looking for those in the know, I believe that was our “Tranmere moment”

Wouldnt it be lovely to educate the present squad what the “Tranmere moment ” means to us all

8. Ray Knight - 14/03/2021

Thanks Matt for your insightful analysis. CC were agricultural aside from the first 12 minutes, a cross between Bassett’s Wimbledon and a Pulis/ Rory Delap inspired Stoke. Challah played a blinder, the best since he was an inspired 17 year old on-loan from Chelsea. I agree the winner was nothing like the luck our rivals have had recently with penalty decisions. We now have a great opportunity in the next three games to really turn the screw on them. Still believe its a good thing we play them all in the run-in as it keeps our destiny in our own hands. COYHs!

9. Roger Smith - 14/03/2021

Everyone who wished me a happy birthday was met with the response “that depends on the Cardiff result”. It was a very happy birthday!

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2021

😊very glad. A belated happy birthday

10. Adam Segal - 14/03/2021

Matt, I look forward to your posts every week, they’re so beautifully written. Thanks so much!

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2021

Cheers Adam

11. John Smith - 14/03/2021

Another excellent and insightful piece Matt. You appear to encapsulate many of our thoughts. Nat stood tall with his Captaincy and the team held a very strong City team at bay. To get a winner in the last minute from a free-kick was the icing on the cake.
Brilliant standards you are setting MR thank you.

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2021

Many thanks John 😊

12. John Parslow - 14/03/2021

Brilliant . Nuff said !

Matt Rowson - 14/03/2021

😊

13. MG99 - 15/03/2021

Couldn’t put it better if I spent a month writing a match report Matt, conjured up the emotions brilliantly. Loved “João Pedro quickly on the scene, shock” – whenever a ruckus breaks out, one of the first things I’m looking for is Pedro, he can’t help himself!
Not sure I could have brought myself to settle for a draw, made that free-kick all the sweeter. Bring on the Millers…

14. Leggatts 'orn - 15/03/2021

Got into work early this morning, the milk in the fridge is completely sour, still well in date. Guessing McCarthy’s expression on 90+4 has done that to most of the milk in Hertfordshire.

Matt Rowson - 15/03/2021

ho ho. I thought he was relatively restrained tbh… “I suppose we’d have been going mental as well”. And I enjoyed the Doc Brown look.

15. Graham French - 15/03/2021

Beautifully crafted write up, as ever, Matt. What a game! By the 80th minute I was resigned to 1-1 & feared a last minute sucker punch, against the run of play. Well, we certainly got last minute drama. So many positives, but just to take one, the fluidity of the front 3 , & also the midfield. You never know who’s going to pop up on which side of the pitch!


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