First Team 29/12/2018

Match Report: Watford 1-1 Newcastle United

By Kevin Affleck

He never gives the way away, as the song goes, but here Abdoulaye Doucouré ensured Watford did not throw away a game against Newcastle for the second time this season.

With ten minutes left of a match that was a difficult watch and with the Hornets seemingly sleepwalking towards back-to-back defeats against the Magpies, Doucouré stole into the box like a seasoned attacking midfielder and thumped in a header from a Gerard Deulofeu cross. It was a goal that got his side out of jail as they had been sluggish and in desperate need of some inspiration.

Nobody affiliated to Watford was seeking a point pre-match, especially after how events panned out in the fixture at St James' Park, but this was one of those days when you are grateful for anything after playing considerably below your usual standard. Take the point, forget about how you got it and how you played and move onto the next one.

Javi Gracia made six changes in a bid to avoid fatigue becoming a factor, but instead the Hornets looked disjointed and a shadow of the side who had a real crack at Chelsea in midweek. He was hoping to give the likes of Troy Deeney and Doucouré the afternoon off, but it was a sign of how things were not going according to plan that he summoned them from the bench nine minutes after half-time.

It has to be said that Newcastle are not a soft touch and their only defeat in their previous five away games was at Liverpool, and we all know how easily the wheels can come off there. They were good value for at least a point here as they worked hard, were tactically disciplined and defended stoutly. It was no smash and grab.

You just expected a bit more from the Hornets, a bit of magic from Roberto Pereyra, a twinkling of the toes from Deulofeu or some good old-fashioned No. 9 play from Isaac Success or substitute Deeney. But the Magpies snuffed them out and did a number on the Golden Boys who just couldn't figure out a way through or come up with an answer until Doucouré popped up with that header. Gracia will have been disappointed as he has been all season as this performance wasn't at the level he so often talks about.

The omens were there from the outset as the Hornets looked disjointed in the first period and never played with any fluency. Having said that, things may have been completely different had Deulofeu tucked away their best chance after 15 minutes, but it went begging, just like it did at St James' Park.

Sensing it might be their day again against the wasteful Hornets, Newcastle were not about to look a gift horse in the mouth and they rocked the home side with the opening goal on 28 minutes. Christian Atsu did all the hard work, selling Will Hughes like a kipper in spinning 180 degrees and then sending Matt Ritchie down the left wing. His delicious cross was so inviting and the sort every No. 9 craves. Salomón Rondón charged onto it and headed it powerfully past Ben Foster, who stood no chance. The Hornets had conceded a goal before they had conceded a corner.

The goal gave Newcastle an even greater belief and had the opposite effect on the Hornets, who became nervy and unsure. Soon after, you had the usually dependable Craig Cathcart caught dallying by Mohamed Diamé in the middle of the field and almost putting Rondón clear for a shot at his second.

The former West Bromwich Albion forward did have the ball in the net on 39 minutes from a cross by Ayoze Pérez but, fortunately, he was flagged offside. It was just as well as 2-0 is a long way back against a side organised so well by Rafa Benítez. 

The Golden Boys ended the half on the front foot, with Success thrashing one effort straight at Martin Dúbravka and then seeing another deflected over by an excellent last-ditch challenge by Federico Fernandez, but the knowledgeable Hornets' fans knew they had not seen the best of their side and there were a few jeers as the players sloped off at the break.

Deeney stayed out at half-time and you thought he was going to be thrown at the break, but it was Newcastle who made the first change, bringing on Fabian Schär for the presumably injured Fernandez.

“C'mon Watford, c'mon Watford,” bellowed the home fans as they sought to inject some life into their side, but it was Newcastle who had the first sight of goal, the axis of Ritchie and Rondón combining again for the hulking striker to head over from a corner. It was not the fast start by the home side we had hoped for.

Gracia had seen enough and, in 53 minutes, responded by making a double change, bringing on Deeney and Doucouré for Will Hughes and Domingos Quina and then shunting Deulofeu out to the right. 

It changed very little and the Hornets were still searching for that spark when Gracia summoned José Holebas, his goal-scoring and assist-making left-back, from the bench with just over ten minutes remaining. You suspected the assault on the Newcastle goal would now come from the left but, instead, the ball was played to the right, Deulofeu produced a cross equally good as Ritchie’s in the first half and Doucouré’s header was the equal of Rondón's. 

The Hornets pushed frenziedly for a winner, but it wouldn't have been deserved had they got one and they can be thankful for a point when defeat seemed on the cards. You can't play well every week.

HORNETS | Foster (GK); Janmaat, Mariappa (C), Cathcart, Masina (Holebas 79); Hughes (Deeney 53), Capoue, Quina (Doucouré 53) Pereyra, Deulofeu, Success. 

Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Britos, Cleverley, Sema.

First Team 28/12/2018

Gracia: “What We Need Is The Three Points Against Newcastle”

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

By Kevin Affleck

There have been a few occasions this season when the Hornets have good reason to feel hard done by, when they haven't always got what they deserved. The most glaring example was up at St James' Park in November.

The Golden Boys had 16 shots on goal – including 13 in a lop-sided first half – and had nearly 60 per cent of the possession yet, unfathomably, managed to return without even a point for their efforts. Javi Gracia was left scratching his head in the immediate aftermath, but has since reframed his opinion and is more sanguine. 

“You always learn things from games you play,” he said. “If you ask my opinion, that game we played really well. We had chances to win that game, but Newcastle took their chance after a free-kick. After that they won. I don't know who deserved the victory, but I was happy with the performance. It was just a bad result.”

That's the thing about Gracia: he is more concerned with the level of the performance as he believes, more often than not, it will lead to a positive result. It's a more sustainable philosophy than, say, attempting to grind out 1-0 wins week after week. 

“When we think about the past, we always thinking about doing something better,” he said. “Our mentality is to try and improve day by day. The performance of the team has been good and we have been competing in all the games. I think we are on the right way. I think we are enjoying the games and competing.”

The Hornets are in tenth spot, but are only one point behind Leicester in seventh. A club-high finish in the Premier League is certainly within reach as this team looks every inch a top-ten side.

“I don't know if we are able to finish tenth or better,” said Gracia. “We are ambitious and we want to be the champion, not only tenth. We play all the games with that mentality. At the end we will see what we are able to achieve. I want to win all the games and my target is the same: to try to win the next game because this way, we don't make mistakes. I think it's the best mentality. We'll see at the end of the season what we are able to achieve but, in this moment, what we need is the three points against Newcastle.

“We try to keep doing the same things we are doing because training like we are doing and preparing and competing in this moment, I am sure we are able to keep the good results and good performances. I don't know what happens in the future, but I am confident we will keep the same level.”

Gracia knows his team needs to be at it on Saturday as the Magpies are much-improved away from home, winning two and drawing two of their last five on the road.

“They are much better now,” said the Head Coach. “They have changed the shape and are playing more times with three at the back. This way they have got better results. They have a good squad, a good team, good players and in the beginning they had Rondon injured sometimes. Now he is playing more times. It's a good squad.”

Extracting the maximum out of what he's been furnished with is Rafa Benitez. Gracia has gone head-to-head with his countryman three times, winning one, drawing one (while in charge of Malaga against Real Madrid) and losing the other at St James' Park. Gracia just missed out being coached by Benitez as a player. He left Real Valladolid in the summer of 1995 at roughly the same time Benitez was appointed manager, but he is a former teammate of Mikel Antía, Benitez's assistant.

“I respect Rafa a lot,” said Gracia. “In Spain and in England he always made a great job, not only for the title. All the managers respect him a lot, and me as well. We usually speak about the game [when we meet]. We spend the time speaking about many things, not only about football.”

Gracia has noted how Newcastle have evolved of late and the plan will be very different to the one he devised in November.

“The shape they will play will be different,” said Gracia. “They don't look for the possession – they try to surprise with counter-attacks. It will be different. I think we have more possession than in our last game. I think we need to be do better and get a better result.”