GT Matchday: Watford 1-1 Sampdoria
Watford fans were given an exciting glimpse of the promise of the partnership between Andre Gray and Troy Deeney when the pair combined for the latter to clinch a draw with Sampdoria at Vicarage Road this afternoon.
Playing a classic two-up formation that would have got the seal of approval from the great Graham Taylor, the Hornets marked The GT Matchday by recovering from the concession of a ninth-minute goal to ensure honours ended even thanks to the telepathy of Gray and Deeney.
You would expect Deeney to be providing the knock-downs for Gray but, on 54 minutes, the roles were reversed here, with Gray cushioning a header from a José Holebas cross into the path of the captain and he made no mistake from 10 yards, slotting the ball into the bottom corner. It was the sort of goal Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett would have combined for in the glory days under GT.
The goal summed up the more direct approach the Hornets played with in the second half after a tentative first period. Encouragingly, the Hornets got better as the match wore on, played with more purpose, more cohesion and the signs were encouraging ahead of the big kick-off against Brighton.
Roberto Pereyra became more influential as the game unfolded, finding himself in pockets of space and seeking to unlock the back door with his incisive and perceptive passing. But perhaps most pleasing was the performance of Craig Cathcart. The defender has had a rotten time with injury during the last two seasons, but he looked back to his very best here.
He produced a lovely cross-field switch to Ken Sema in the first half and showed a couple of nice touches to lose his marker on the couple of occasions when the pressure was on. He also did the dirty stuff well and produced an excellent recovery tackle in the second half. His restoration to full fitness will be like having a new signing.
There has been plenty of activity in the transfer market this summer but the Hornets made just two changes from the side who played the last game here against Newcastle last season, Ben Foster making his return to Vicarage Road to replace the departed Orestis Karnezis, and new signing Ken Sema coming in for the recovering Abdoulaye Doucouré.
The early signs were promising for the Hornets when Deeney registered the first shot on target, but the Hornets failed to build on that start and Sampdoria established a foothold in the game.
The Italians were neat and tidy in possession and it looked like they might open up the Hornets with some slick interplay, but instead their opener came from a corner after nine minutes. Joachim Anderson hooked back an out-swinging delivery and then his centre-back partner, Omar Colley, deflected it past Ben Foster inside the six-yard box. The Hornets looked to the assistant referee in the hope he'd raised his flag for offside, but it never came. It was a soft goal to concede.
The game was played at a bit of a testimonial pace thereafter, which was no real surprise given the scorching conditions. Such was the heat that the players had to take a water break midway through the first half.
Watford were decent in possession and moved the ball around well from side to side, but they didn't really create much against a well-organised Sampdoria defence. On one occasion, they did get the ball wide, Holebas slinging over a cross that Gray rose highest to head just over.
Now with a taste for it, Gray flashed another effort into the side-netting and then Sema sent one across the face of goal via a deflection. This was more like it.
With Sampdoria content to play on the counter-attack, the Hornets had to have their wits about them at the other end and it took an excellent recovery tackle from Christian Kabasele to thwart Grègoire Defrel, who had hared down the inside right channel and found himself within range of goal.
If the Hornets were a bit passive in the first half, then they certainly played more on the front foot in the second period. Yes, Daryl Janmaat only managed to hit the underside of the roof of the Rookery Stand after being teed up by Will Hughes, but the signs were more promising.
Soon after, Deeney had an effort blocked excellently by the impressive Colley, after Sema cut the ball back for him. Pereyra had sparked the move with a neat bit of footwork on the left-hand edge of the box — and the Argentine was at it again minutes later, teeing up Gray this time, only for the Colley to produce another timely block. Colley was signed for £5 million from Genk this summer and he looks a shrewd piece of business.
Holebas then had the crowd gasping with a rising left-footed effort that flashed over the bar. It felt like the equaliser was coming and it duly did on 54 minutes.
Holebas slung over a cross, Gray knocked it down for Deeney and the captain made no mistake from close range. With their partnership now in full swing, Deeney almost turned provider with a lovely weighted ball with the outside of his foot, but it just spun out of the path of Gray, who had sprung the Sampdoria defensive line.
The game petered out thereafter as both sides ensured they kept plenty in the tank for the start of the league season, but a draw here was no mean feat for the Hornets. Sampdoria were a clear step-up in opposition and finished 10th in the Serie A last season. Now for the serious stuff to begin.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes (Charles, 71), Capoue, Pereyra, Sema; Deeney (C), Gray.
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Dahlberg (GK), Prödl, Mariappa, Wilmot, Navarro, Femenía, Masina, Success.