Seven goals, three more disallowed, a penalty, another good appeal turned down and more bad challenges than you can shake a bestudded foot at – you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was an enthralling game that kicked off 2013 in style. In fact, for us Watford fans at least, it was a frustrating match, full of sloppy play, infuriating inconsistencies and most importantly, three dropped points.
2012 finished so well, and hopes are high going into the new year: a chance to try our arm against the reigning English champions on Saturday, as well as the longer-term goal of achieving promotion to the top table meant that there was no festive hangovers. But perhaps we are starting to believe our own hype.
Sky’s cameras at the Brighton game on Saturday meant our emphatic win reached the attention of a wider audience, and was the catalyst for a heap of praise for the attacking verve in our squad. The fans, as fans are wont to do, have set their sights on the top of the league table, and now, it seems, the players are getting similar ideas.
It was not Gianfranco Zola’s shuffling of the line-up that led to the sloppy and stuttering performance, but rather the complacency that those on the pitch exuded, the feeling that all we needed to do was show up and saunter off with the three points. Perhaps the absence of Fitz Hall and Jonathan Hogg, two undeniably guffless characters, contributed to this; there were no outfield leaders to nip the swagger in the bud.
And for a while it worked. Nathaniel Chalobah hardly had to break into a jog as he weaved through the entirety of the Charlton midfield to play in Alex Geijo. The Swissman, given a rare start at home, saw his instinctive, curling shot saved by Ben Hamer but Daniel Pudil was on hand to charge into the box and slam the ball across Hamer and into the bottom corner.
More possession followed, but showboating seemed to be the order of the day. Charlton were there for the taking, but like mid-noughties Arsenal at their worst, Watford seemed intent on scoring the perfect goal rather than just concentrating on securing the win: final balls were overhit, moves were ended by unnecessary flicks; a penalty should have been awarded when Almen Abdi latched onto a lovely through ball into the box and, deciding not to take his opportunity to shoot, squared to Fernando Forestieri whose shot was blocked by an outstretched hand. Whilst a spot kick that would have made the score a less salvageable 2-0 should have followed, the decision would have been moot had Abdi taken the shot rather than overplaying once again.
Of course, one of the reasons that we love this Watford side is the flair, the unpredictability and the magical ability to take the piss out of the opposition – there was one occasion in the early exchanges when a twist of the hips and flick of the boot from Chalobah left his two markers for dead, and elicited an audible gasp from the bemused crowd – but not at the expense of victory. One moment we seemed comfortable, cruising in first gear, the next we were 2-1 down – rocked – and nobody knew what to do about it.
We had never got out of first gear, and now that we needed to, we couldn’t manage it. Leon Cort, playing as a sweeper, was equal to every penetrating ball that was attempted, and Forestieri and the reintroduced Sean Murray were kept incredibly quiet. It didn’t help that Charlton were stifling our progression with a series of niggly and, at times, pretty severe fouls that Trevor Kettle, the much maligned referee, failed to clamp down on.
Nevertheless, it was never in doubt, in my mind at least, that victory would come eventually. Confidence in the team can lead to complacency, but it also means you never know when you’re beaten, and it seemed inevitable when the scoreline was once more reversed to become 3-2.
Forestieri, who had been booked earlier for a deliberate handball – his third different unnecessary bookable offence against Charlton this year – burst into the box and went to ground. Kettle whistled, but hesitated to point to the spot, an agonising moment as we waited to see if the mercurial Argentinean would once again fail to see out a game against the Addicks. Fortunately, he did, and Abdi dispatched the penalty with little fuss.
Not long later, Forestieri played a precise ball into the path of Geijo, who slotted past the onrushing Hamer to return the lead to Watford. The two had started the half well, combining to create some glorious moves. Not two minutes before the penalty, Hamer saved from close range to deny Forestieri what may well have been the greatest goal scored in the history of humanity as the two 1-2-3-4-5ed their way through the Charlton back line.
Watford were back in the lead and all was right in the world. But the defence would have the final say about that.
Tommie Hoban was clearly shaken by his own goal – poking hurriedly past Almunia at a corner after Geijo missed a header – and had his worst game in a Watford shirt. He was not helped by the lack of an experienced head alongside him. Almunia was constantly shouting at the youngster in an attempt to quell his nerves, but with Joel Ekstrand the oldest member of the three man defence at 23, there was not a foundation of calm for Hoban to fall back on.
Especially not with Neuton around.
Neuton. What to say about him? For a start, he’s not an especially good defender. It’s not really a case of accomplished defender who occasionally goes missing trying to play some expansive brand football, he’s just not that good. Play the ball in the air to a striker anywhere near him and he’s unlikely to put up much of a challenge for it – if he’s anywhere near the player he’s meant to be marking in the first place. Ricardo Fuller is a very good player at Championship level, and would be playing higher if not for his dodgy knees, but he toyed with the Brazilian time and time again, in the air and on the ground. And as good as Fuller is, I can assure you that Edin Dzeko is a bit better, and will carve Neuton up like a Christmas turkey if the two meet on Saturday.
To be fair to the bloke, though, he had a lot on his plate. I mean, he had to fit his odd spurts of defending around his main task of jumping around like a prat every time a Charlton player put a challenge in on him. As previously mentioned, not many prisoners were taken in the Addick’s approach, but Neuton’s over-the-top playacting would not have endeared us to Kettle, and were most probably counter-intuitive.
We’re not a cheating side. Sure, there are a few players who tend to ‘emphasise the foul’ with theatrical tumbles, but that’s it – most of the time. But brainless histrionics like Neuton’s give the side a bad image, an image that helps to make up a referee’s mind, even when legitimate offences have taken place.
So he’s a bit of a berk.
The goals, then. First Fuller made his way along the byline unimpeded and cut back to Yann Kermorgant to score his second of the afternoon, then Johnnie Jackson – the former Vicarage Road stinker-upper – rose unchallenged to head home. All four of Charlton’s goals came from balls from wide areas that were not so much dealt with badly, but more not dealt with at all. Fitz Hall, who will still be out for the Manchester City game on Saturday, was greatly missed in mind, body and spirit.
There were positives. Geijo showed fantastic technique throughout, and in the second half in particular showed an ability to link up well with Forestieri. As well as his good effort in the build up to the first goal and his composed finish for the third, he had an audacious lob tipped over the bar by a backtracking Hamer. Much like Chalobah, he buys himself a lot time with his ability to take his first touch with his head up and his body already moving; though I would expect the rested Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra to come back into the team on Saturday, Geijo’s skills might be more suited to the greater space and time that City will provide at the Etihad.
Thinking about it, that was pretty much the only positive. Murray was incredibly rusty, Chalobah disappeared after a promising start (still waiting on the loan extension, Franco), Almunia picked up a knock and struggled to see out the game and Abdi had to go off after being kicked one time too many.
This was a game that we should have been winning. Charlton are no great shakes, and unlike other sides that we have underperformed against, did not stifle or stymie us with tactics. This defeat was down to under-performance, pure and simple. If you’re going to go about with the impression that you’re the best team in the league, then you need to be prepared to prove it.