Match Report: Watford 3-3 Tranmere Rovers
By Kevin Affleck
There is never a dull moment watching this team at the minute.
Not content with playing two games with ten men and four of the nail-biting variety in ten days over Christmas, the Hornets threw away a three-goal half-time lead, finished yet again with a man down and will now have to do it all again in a replay. Talk about the drama of the cup.
While Nigel Pearson will privately be furious at the nature of how the team did not close this one out, throwing away a three-goal lead they forged inside 37 minutes, it will, he'll contend, be a reminder to everyone that there is plenty of work to be done and no-one should be getting carried away just yet. It was a reality check and his dressing-room debrief will have been fascinating.
It also provides the chance for this group of peripheral players to put it right in the replay and experience what is likely to be a lively night at Prenton Park. It's all character building and no damage has yet been done. Despite the fact it felt like a defeat, last season's runners-up are, let's not forget, still in the hat for the next round.
For so long it looked like it would represent just about the perfect afternoon for the home side. It looked like being a day of firsts.
There were first starts for Daniel Bachmann, Bayli Spencer-Adams, Tom Dele-Bashiru; first appearances for João Pedro and Callum Whelan and first goals for Dele-Bashiru and, as a permanent player, for Nathaniel Chalobah. It was just a shame this wasn't the first routine win in weeks, as it's been edge-of-the-seat stuff recently, but where would the fun have been in that?
On the plus side, the players who had run themselves into the ground with four games in ten days got to put their feet up; fringe players Andre Gray, Roberto Pereyra and Craig Dawson got some minutes under their belt to ensure they will be sharp when needed, as they will be, while there was also a nod to the club's Academy, which is important in these parts.
It all started so well. You got the impression the Hornets were going to be at it pretty early on. Domingos Quina dispossessed David Perkins with the sort of tigerish midfield play that so often sets the tone for the rest. Chalobah pinged one from left to right in a move straight out of Étienne Capoue's playbook and then Adam Masina thundered down the left. The portents were encouraging.
Dele-Bashiru confirmed the Hornets were on the right track by crashing in the first, albeit with a slight deflection off Connor Jennings, and then Chalobah steered one in with his left foot. It was his first goal for the club since the cracker at Leicester in April 2013.
Right then, it looked a question of how many the Hornets would get. They added one towards the end of the first half when Pereyra popped up on the end of some approach play from Isaac Success and Andre Gray to curl one into the far post with his left foot. It looked like this one was done dusted at that point.
Pearson felt it was time to unleash Pedro at the break and he nearly made a fairytale start by almost rifling one in at the near post after a driving run from Success. That really would have put the icing on the cake and that would definitely have been game over.
The team were playing with such freedom that Dawson, up from centre-half, even cracked one over the angle of post and bar from distance. There was another change when Whelan came on with just under an hour to go and the former Manchester United youngster wasn't given an easy ride in the last half hour as Tranmere rallied, scoring through Jennings with 25 to play. Bachmann then had to pull off a smart save soon after, suggesting there was more to come.
And there was. Tranmere were not done there. Not by a long shot. Roared on by their magnificent support of 2,692, they put the game in the balance with a goal from the mountainous Manny Monthé with 12 minutes to go and then really put the cat amongst the pigeons with an equaliser from the spot with three minutes to go. There was a real fear they could have nicked it at the end, especially when Pereyra was shown a straight red.
It had shades of the dramatic nature of the game here against Tranmere in 1999. Having not played the Merseysiders since 1999, we'll now square off against the Super White Army twice in the space of ten days.
HORNETS: Bachmann; Mariappa (C), Dawson, Spencer-Adams (Barrett 77), Masina; Chalobah (Pedro 45), Quina (Whelan 61), Dele-Bashiru; Pereyra, Gray, Success.
Subs not used: Parkes (GK), Sarr, Dalby and Hungbo.