U23 Report | Watford 0-1 Blackburn
The equation is now pretty straight forward after a narrow defeat to Blackburn Rovers: Watford's Under-23 side must now win both of their remaining home games, against Southampton and Cardiff City, to stand a chance of reaching the knockout stages of the Premier League Cup.
A goal after 73 minutes by Lewis Mansell did for them on Monday night and means Hayden Mullins' ever-changing side now has a win, a draw and two defeats from their matches in the cup. This defeat was a touch rough on the Young Hornets as they had a right good go, particularly at the start of the second half, on a freezing night at Wealdstone FC, but there was to be no comeback this time.
The extraordinary escape acts against Bristol City and Coventry City inside four days probably took their toll in the end and Blackburn, who hadn't played since February 2, had that little bit more left in the tank. Having said that it was a vast improvement on the performance that resulted in a 6-1 defeat at the hands of the same opposition in November and showed Watford, on their day, can mix it with Cat 1 sides.
Watford did plenty right in the first two thirds of the field, with the excellent Max Ryan and Ashley Charles particularly excelling, but just lacked that little bit of luck and little bit of quality at the business end of the field. It was a night when they could have done with the services of arch poacher Ryan Cassidy, who was rested for this one after two games in four days as a 16-year-old, or Alex Jakubiak who, to his huge credit, was sitting in the stands rooting for his Under-23 colleagues.
With the games coming thick and fast, Mullins again had to shuffle his pack. Harvey Bradbury was brought in to lead the line instead of Cassidy, a buoyant Joy Mukena came into the heart of the defence after spending the last two matches on the first-team bench while Ben Jones, a centre-half by trade, can now say he has played in every position in the Under-23 back four after being asked to play left-back.
There was a good shape and organisation throughout but particularly in the first half when they had to roll up their sleeves and do some defending when playing up the slope. They were up against the physically imposing Joseph Nuttall, who has scored twice and played eight times for Rovers' first team, and Mukena and Ryan had to be really on their mettle. The timing of Ryan's interceptions were particularly impressive.
Behind them, Sam Howes continues to show why he was capped at youth level by England and why he spent most of his teenage years at West Ham. He made an excellent low stop to deny Willem Tomlinson finding the bottom corner after eight minutes, dived bravely at the feet of a posse of players to stop a threatening low centre from Charley Doyle reaching its target and then, with the pick of the bunch, dived high to his left to stop a free-kick from Joseph Grayson finding the top corner. He was largely responsible for the team going in at the break all square.
Watford threatened through David Sesay, who tried to bend a left-footed effort into the far corner, and Dennon Lewis, who blasted a well-positioned free-kick high, high over the bar. But that was about it in the first 45 minutes.
Kicking down the slope in the second period, the Hornets signalled their intent immediately by forcing a corner inside a minute following a teasing centre by Dion Pereira. Watford were now keen to play on the front foot and dictate the pace.
With his dad Lee, the former Portsmouth striker in the stands, Bradbury tried his luck from long range after good link up play with Lewis and then Lewis slalomed his way through the Rovers defence to win a free-kick on the edge of the box. Sesay smashed it over the bar but the signs were hugely promising. The fact Blackburn picked up two bookings in quick succession, for late challenges on the free-running Lewis and Pereira, was a further sign of the threat Watford were starting to pose and the problems they were causing the visitors' defence.
It looked like the game would finish goalless or Watford would nick it so it came as a surprise and a bit of a set-back when Lewis Mansell, on as a substitute, ripped one across Howes and in-off the far post with 17 minutes remaining. It was probably going to take a strike as clean as that to beat the inspired Howes. It was harsh as Watford deserved a clean sheet for the way they defended.
Watford, as is their way, refused to lie down and continued to have a go. Charles flashed one across the face of goal that just need a touch and then Pereira saw a clean strike on the angle palmed into the side-netting by Andrew Fisher in the Blackburn goal. But it wasn't to be and all eyes are now on the cup game with Southampton.
HORNETS | Howes (GK); Eleftheriou, Mukena, Ryan, Jones, Sesay, Charles, Stewart (Kaikay 81) Lewis, Pereira, Bradbury.
Subs not used | Tricker, Gartside, S Sesay, Forster.
The Hornets' Under-23 Cup fixture against Southampton will now take place this Thursday (February 15) at Vicarage Road, with a 2pm KO. This match will take place behind closed doors.
The game originally scheduled for this date against Colchester United has been postponed. Check the Academy fixtures and results page for updates.