First Team 15/05/2019

Gracia: “I Am So Proud To Be In This Final”

Watch Javi Gracia's pre-FA Cup final press conference above, or read on below.

By Kevin Affleck

Javi Gracia knows the team he will send out to face Manchester City in the final of the FA Cup and will now spend the next few days focusing on ensuring his players know the game plan inside out.

The Head Coach is yet to tell the players the XI and sometimes waits until the day of the game to reveal his hand. The players reported back for training today after a day off on Tuesday, and they will only start to figure out if they are featuring at Wembley as cup final week progresses as Gracia starts to deliver detailed instructions regarding shape and set-pieces.

"I have decided," said Gracia. "You can always change something when you are preparing for the game, but changing one player at the end of the week doesn't change my plan. I trust all of them. I was thinking many days ago about how best to defend, how best to attack and what players are better to do that. We have different options and I would like all of them to play in the final. It is not possible."

Gracia has no fresh injury concerns. Sebastian Prödl and Domingos Quina will play no part in the final because of injury and although Gerard Deulofeu trained on his own today due to a hip problem, the Head Coach expects him to be fit for the showpiece game at the home of English football.

Having as many options available as possible gives Gracia the flexibility to come up with a tactical plan to first of all keep City at bay and then go about finding a chink in their armour. The Hornets lost by a single goal at Vicarage Road and kept them at bay for half the game at the Etihad.

"We lost both games but I think we showed that we can beat them. We competed really well in both games in different moments. In the first game we lost 2-1 but we competed until the end and had chances at the end. In the second one we kept the result until the second half and then they scored from an offside position and the game changed. It was then tough for us to keep the same attitude. I think it showed us it's possible."

The match will pitch Gracia against his compatriot Pep Guardiola, who spoke after the game at the Etihad about what a smart tactician Watford's Head Coach is, referencing the 1-0 win he pulled off against Barcelona when in charge of Malaga in 2015.

"Pep is the best in the Premier, yes," said Gracia. "I think he deserves the recognition [of the LMA Manager of the Year]. He is a very good manager and we have a good relationship. I don't speak with him many times but we have a good relationship."

Born 262 days apart, Gracia, 49, and Guardiola, 48, were both deep-lying midfielders and the final is being followed even more closely in Spain as it's the man from Pamplona up against Santpedor's finest.

"We are working in this country and there are other Spanish coaches as well," Gracia said. "We have the chance to coach in the final and in Spain they speak about us because it speaks well about Spanish managers. It is the same in England with English teams in the European finals."

The final represents the pinnacle of Gracia's football career, as a player or a coach, but it is extra special as it will be the first time his mother has watched him coach in England.

"My mum is coming for the final," he said. "I haven't see her for a long time, maybe one year. It's special. I am just so proud for the club to be in this final, so proud to be at this club and so proud for the players. I feel very proud of my team. This season has been amazing. I said in other comments that the success of this season doesn't depend on the final result. My opinion is that my players deserve recognition as they have done many things well. It is only one step as we want to be more ambitious. It is not enough. We want to improve."

Gracia does not need to be told about 1984 and the final with Everton. He read up on the club before he took the job and has been thirsty for information ever since he arrived. 

"I know in the past there have been some important games, but I am sure it will be a different game, with different moments and different teams," he said. "We try to show our best face and play as best as possible and have a good performance. After that we'll see if we are able to achieve the trophy.

"We try to prepare as usual. We don't do anything different this week. We try to analyse the rival, prepare the sessions and try to be ready to compete in the next game. In this case it is to play against City. It's tough as they are the champion of the Premier League. We know it but we know we will have our chances and we are ready to play."

First Team 15/05/2019

Goalkeepers’ Union: “It’s Like A Bromance”

By Kevin Affleck

Back in 2016, in an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, Costel Pantilimon was readying himself for another stint on Watford’s bench when Quique Sánchez Flores, the then Head Coach, patted him on the back in the changing room just before the bell rang and wished him good luck. 

Pantilimon was confused as a tactics board in the team hotel on the morning of the game had clearly shown Heurelho Gomes’ number in the goalkeeping spot. Sánchez Flores had said all week Pantilimon was going to continue as the cup keeper but those in the team room just thought Sánchez Flores had had a late change of heart and decided Gomes was the man to keep Arsenal at bay after all.

It turns out Sánchez Flores had just made an error on the tactics board and that Pantilimon was playing all along. What followed in the bowels of the Emirates, just minutes before kick-off, was an 11th hour petitioning of the referee to allow Pantilimon to play and a frantic resubmitting of the team. Despite the chaotic preparation, Pantilimon had a fine game as the Hornets knocked out the winners of the past two seasons. 

But this is not what’s important. What’s key here is the communication lines and how no-one, not Sanchez Flores’ assistant, not the goalkeeping coach, not even Gomes or Pantilimon, challenged the Head Coach’s decision. Now, such is the democracy of the dressing room and the characters in it, that Ben Foster, the undisputed No. 1, would probably stand up in the team meeting and tell Javi Gracia that he had made a mistake, that Gomes, the No. 2 and the cup ‘keeper this time round, should play in the final. In fact, he’d insist on it. That’s the dynamic of their relationship, you see. 

In the week building up to the quarter-final win over Crystal Palace you had Gomes telling the media that Foster was the best ‘keeper in England. Foster later reached for the crying emoji on Twitter when it was announced Gomes is “99.9 per cent” he is retiring this summer. They only became teammates last summer, but it feels like they’ve been mates for a lifetime. This is a friendship that will endure.

There is a mutual respect and it’s a far cry from Kepa Arrizabalaga refusing to come off for penalty specialist Willy Caballero at Wembley in February. Foster is 35 and this might be last crack at winning a trophy, but there is no trace of him pulling rank. He’s not banging on Gracia’s door, demanding he now plays because the stakes are high and we are at the business end of the competition.

“For a team like us when you are changing outfield players it can maybe make a difference but when it comes to the goalkeeper, especially when you are talking about someone with the talent of Gomes, I get to see him in training and he’s an unbelievable goalkeeper, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference,” said Foster. “If you are changing a handful of outfield players then it can make some difference, but Gomes is still a world-class goalkeeper.”

Gomes has been an automatic choice since he joined the club in 2014 and he could easily have had his nose put out of joint when Foster rocked up in the summer from West Bromwich Albion. But he’s taken his medicine and accepted time moves on.

“When you lose your place for someone that is below [your level] in performance [that’s difficult], but Ben is up there, and I cannot complain, because I lost my place for a very, very good goalkeeper,” he said.

It’s not just words, either. Gomes raced onto the field at the Amex Stadium when Foster produced one of the performances of his career to keep a clean sheet against Brighton in February. Foster reciprocated when Gomes produced a masterclass in the art of commanding your box at Queens Park Rangers in the fifth round.

“For a position where a huge degree of selfishness is needed to be No. 1, it is imperative your working relationship with other goalkeepers is competitive and respectful,” said Graham Stack, who was second choice to Jens Lehman in the year Arsenal became the Invincibles. He is now Academy Goalkeeping Coach at Watford. “When I see how well Foster and Gomes train together, push and support each other it is great to see for other goalkeepers. They share a strong bond which has bought the best out of both of them this season.”

Stack was part of Arsenal's 'Invincibles' squad as No. 2 to Jens Lehmann

They are also grooming the long-term successor in Pontus Dahlberg, the 20-year-old Sweden international who is the No. 3 stopper on the club's books.

“They are two amazing goalkeepers and I’ve learnt a lot,” said Dahlberg. “They have huge experience in the Premier League and with the national team. It’s an honour to train with them every day. I can learn a lot and I’m taking every chance to watch and see what they do. I just want to take everything in. They explain different situations to me.”

Foster and Gomes are also showing just what a No. 1 and No. 2 relationship should look like. “It’s like a bromance,” said Dahlberg. “They have such a good relationship and really push each other in training. After training we laugh and chat so much. I can’t ask for better goalkeepers to have as teammates. We have a WhatsApp group and we just post some crazy goalkeeper stuff and congratulate each other on birthdays and stuff.”

Or, fingers crossed, on winning the FA Cup final.

Credit: Emirates FA Cup matchday programme.