By Kevin Affleck
Watford’s cup dream is well and truly alive after they jumped through the most difficult of hoops at Loftus Road this evening.
Playing against a pumped-up Queens Park Rangers side on an electric night in West London, this game had all the ingredients for an upset and indeed the Hornets were made to work harder than have been in some Premier League matches this season. But the Golden Boys came through a searching examination of their mental and physical toughness to book their place in the quarter-final. But only just, surviving the hairiest of moments when Toni Leistner somehow slid one wide at the far post four minutes from time.
QPR will wonder how they did not force extra time at the very least as they made virtually all of the running and threw the kitchen sink at the under-siege visitors. If this was a league game, they would have deserved a point at the very least.
Javi Gracia’s side didn’t play well by any stretch of the imagination, but cup football, particularly in these tricky rounds, isn’t always about how fluent, cohesive and pretty you can be. It’s about getting the job done, about grinding it out and making sure your fans have a reason to sit through The One Show.
The record books will show Étienne Capoue as the match-winner for his strike in stoppage time at the end of the first half, but the victory owed much to the way everyone stood up to be counted. Miguel Britos, in particular, was colossal in a dogged defensive effort.
The first half in particular was tailor-made for him. It was fast and furious, a helter-skelter affair. It was low on quality, but high on thrills and spills.
The Hornets knew they were in a game from the moment Jordan Cousins crunched into José Holebas, Watford's defensive rock, and QPR never really relented from that approach thereafter.
They did not give the Hornets a moment’s rest and the Loftus Road crowd were loving it, especially when Luke Freeman nut-megged Tom Cleverley on the far side. Still, though, Watford managed to get their foot on the ball and they had 64 per cent of the possession after 25 minutes. They did not do a lot with it, but still, possession is nine tenths of the law.
For all the cut and thrust, for all the blood and thunder, it took until the half-hour mark for there to be an attempt on goal: Daryl Janmaat stabbing over what was essentially a half chance.
QPR were the side who posed the greater threat in the first 45 minutes, but it took them until the last third of the half to translate that into chances. Massimo Luongo struck one threateningly on the half-volley after a weak punch from Heurelho Gomes; Matt Smith headed one just past the far post, although he was offside, and then Nahki Wells forced Gomes to use every inch of his angular frame to finger-tip one round the post. If there was going to be a goal, you felt it was going to go Rangers’ way.
The Hornets, you felt, would just have been happy to get to half-time all square and regroup in the dressing room. But then, out of nowhere really, Holebas slung over a corner, Tom Cleverley mis-cued it into the path of Capoue and he found the bottom corner. It was not a thing of beauty, but who cares.
The goal did not knock the stuffing of the home side and back they came again in the second half. They continued to test the Hornets’ defence from all angles and it required Britos to be at his most determined and resolute to keep Rangers at bay. He headed and kicked most things away from goal, but there was nothing he could do about Wells’ curling effort just past the hour. He and Gomes could only stand and watch as Freeman let fly from distance, breathing a huge sigh of relief when the ball dropped the other side of the far post.
There was a handball shout against Andre Gray at one end, but then, at the other, there was some doubt as to whether he was actually offside when he rounded Joe Lumley and rolled the ball into an empty net.
Not long after, he was replaced along with Ken Sema in a sure sign Gracia wanted to lock things down by bringing on Abdoulaye Doucouré and Adrian Mariappa. It was a sign of how quick the game was or the instructions they had been sent on with that both picked up yellow cards in quick succession.
It was all hands to the pump and the time to thank your lucky stars when Leistner, unmarked at the far post and sliding it, somehow managed to put a Darnell Furlong cross wide of the upright. It was a huge let off and you knew, right there, right then, that it was Watford’s night. Roll on the quarter-final draw.
HORNETS: Gomes (GK); Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Holebas; Sema (Mariappa 73), Cleverley (Quina 82), Capoue, Hughes; Deeney (C), Gray (Doucouré 72).
Subs not used: Dahlberg, Deulofeu, Peñaranda, Navarro.