Watford 0 – Stoke City 1

Allen suspended, no Clumsy or Glenda and the Captain and Phil Bardsley also injured. If ever there was a time for Mystic Mark to look into his crystal ball and come up with a spark of inspiration, it was Sunday and as the Boy and I sat down to watch the match we both wondered if Mystic Mark’s crystal ball had lost its connection. Mame at right wing back, three at the back and Super Jon up front! This was never going to work.

Yet work it did, from the kick off the enforced changes seemed to galvanise the Stoke team as they fought for each other and once they had imposed themselves on the game early on the football began to flow. Imbula, back in the starting XI, was the lynchpin as Arnie, Shaqiri and the two wing backs began to pass the ball around a bemused Watford midfield and it was Stoke who deservedly had the first chance when Mame’s overhead kick was blocked before Bruno and Super Jon saw their follow ups blocked.

At the other end of the pitch Lee Grant was having a quiet Sunday lunchtime although he did have to snatch a 25 yarder out of the air after Charlie Boy gave the ball away cheaply in the middle of the park. But this was an isolated incident and Stoke continued pressing forward with Arnie nodding a cross from the right only for Super to tamely head the ball into Gomes’ grateful arms. The Watford keeper was less fortunate moments later when Charlie Boy rose to meet Shaqiri’s header sending it towards the base of the post and Gomes was only able to parry the ball back into his own net.

The expected Watford response to going a goal behind spluttered into life briefly with the hosts crafting a couple of half chances but the improvised backline of Bruno, Muniesa and Johnson looked comfortable as Watford’s woes continued. In fact it could have been Stoke who finished the half with the next goal but for an outstretched leg denying Super Jon after some neat interplay between Shaqiri and Arnie. Could of then became should of almost straight after the interval when Arnie raced from inside of his own half and squared the ball to Super Jon who has to watch in agony as the ball rolled in front of him with an open goal beckoning.

In the stands the home fans began to turn on their own players as the match’s intensity began to fall and in response Mazzarri decided to throw on first Ighalo and then Okaka in a clear attempt to get the ball in and around the Stoke penalty box but Bruno and the boys were able to deal with everything Watford tried to throw at them.

Maybe Stoke were a little fortunate that the referee waved play on after a hopeful Watford penalty shout, I have seen them given before, but whilst Watford were doing all the attacking it was Stoke who were looking the more dangerous when they broke and it was from one of these quick fire breaks when Shaqiri outpaced Britto. The Watford defender, in desperation, tugged on the Swiss’ shirt earning himself a second yellow and for the remaining five minutes it was the visitors who looked to add to their first half goal with Pieters and Imbula having shots from distance.

This win, and especially the first half display, is a pleasant pick me up after the shambles in our last match against Bournemouth. Stoke dominated one of the teams who many expect to be in and around the bottom of the top half come the end of the season, with a makeshift formation and personal but next week’s game against Burnley is another we need to win if we have ambitions to finish above the likes of Watford so as always there are a few things which need to be taken into consideration:

  • 3-4-3 or whatever it was worked well as a one off and was, in hindsight, the best formation for the players available. It may also be the way Mystic Mark wants to go in the future, it did get the best out of Arnie and Shaqiri, but a lot of thought and hard work would need to be put in before it became Stoke’s preferred formation.
  • Whilst Mame was simply Mame, hard-working, willing to play anywhere and run down any lost cause to ask whether he is Stoke’s answer to Victor Moses is a little premature. Defensively Diouf was all over the place at times and before this experiment was repeated the player needs to undergo an intensive defensive boot camp
  • Even though I don’t expect Hughes to play the same formation next week I hope the manager took note of how much more effective Arnie and Shaqiri were playing further infield.

Stoke Giraffe of the Week           Mark Hughes

Stoke Lemon of the Week           Charlie Adam

Match Ratings

Lee Grant – 7                         Another confident display

Glenn Johnson – 7               His attacking instincts were stunted by playing as part of a back three but did his main job of defending well

Marc Muniesa – 7                Got the chance he wanted as if Stoke do go with a back three would look comfortable there.

Bruno Martin Indi – 9         Immense. In the absence of the Captain put in a captain’s performance

Erik Pieters – 7                     Solid if unconvincing

Charlie Boy – 6                     Maybe a little harsh seeing as he set up the goal but gives the ball away too cheaply to play so deep.

Giannelli Imbula – 8            More like the player we thought we brought in January

Mame Diouf – 8                   Too defensively suspect at the moment to make wing back position his own. Nether the less worked his socks off and posed real questions down Watford’s left

Shaqiri – 8                             Was more involved playing closer to the striker and provided a few moments of magic

Arnie – 9                                Back to his arrogant best, the only thing that is missing now is the goals

Super Jon – 7                        Another who ran his socks off but the chance at the start of the second half showed he is missing a yard or two of pace

Substitutes

Two Meter Peter – 7            Maybe Mystic Mark is right and Crouch deserves another year but only if he realises ten, fifteen minutes at the end of the game is all he is going to get

Manager

Mark Hughes – 9                  Tactical masterstroke or a message from the other side? Whatever prompted the team selection was inspired and showed good reactive thinking by bringing on Two Meter Peter to counter the threat of Okaka.

Referee

Robert Madley – 6                  It was clear from the start he was not going to accept any dissent, the difference between the two teams was Stoke realised this and even Arnie only complained to his team mates. Also stayed strong and didn’t give either of the two soft penalty shouts towards the end of the game.

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October’s Giraffes and Lemons

Another month gone and, at the top, the Premier League looks like it could go down to the wire as no team seems able to gain an advantage over any of their rivals. However unlike in previous seasons I fear there will be no fairy tale to follow with the top five places filled with teams who you would expect to be challenging for the Champions League places come May.

It is a similar scenario at the bottom of the table with two of three relegation places filled by the teams I predicted to finish bottom and after seeing Stoke beat both Sunderland and Hull City convincingly I can’t see either of these teams playing in the Premiership next year. So bad were Sunderland when we played them at the Bet365 they are my Team Lemon for October an award they easily justified at the weekend after they were hammered by Arsenal.

For the Team Giraffe for October there have been a number of contenders from Chelsea and their impressive run of clean sheets to the attacking delight that has been Liverpool over the opening weeks of the season but instead of the obvious my Team Giraffe for October goes to Watford. Whilst not playing the most attractive football in the division Watford have sneaked up the table to 7th place and even though I don’t think they’ll make the European places come the end of the season I wanted to reward them for the little bit of fantasy they are providing and also for being a place above Manchester United.

Here then is my updated prediction for the end of the season (and how it has changed over the course of the month):

  1. Manchester City (1st)
  2. Chelsea (2nd)
  3. Liverpool (6th)
  4. Arsenal (4th)
  5. Tottenham Hotspur (3rd)
  6. Everton (7th)
  7. Manchester United (5th)
  8. Southampton (8th)
  9. Leicester City (9th)
  10. Watford (10th)
  11. Stoke City (14th)
  12. Crystal Palace (11th)
  13. West Bromwich Albion (12th)
  14. Middlesbrough (15th)
  15. West Ham United (13th)
  16. Bournemouth (16th)
  17. Burnley (18th)
  18. Swansea (17th)
  19. Hull City (19th)
  20. Sunderland (20th)

From an individual perspective I feel I have to reward Manchester City for keeping the title race interesting by awarding my Lemon of the Month to one of their players and as a protest at Pep’s insistent on playing football from the back, no matter the cost! Therefore, my Lemon of the Month goes to the poster boy of this movement, Claudio Bravo, not for anything he did in the Premiership this month but instead for his display against his old team mates at the Nou Camp.

Finally my Giraffe of the Month is a nod to Stoke’s move out of the relegation zone and whilst Joe Allen has been in fine goal scoring form the Giraffe goes to Xherdan Shaqiri, who has been the real difference for Stoke in their recent run of good form.

Watford – Are The English Football League Are As Much To Blame?

After watching Stoke play both Sunderland and Hull City it is reassuring to know that, unless both of these teams improve considerably, the remainder of the teams at the bottom of the table are now fighting to avoid one relegation place. So the news that Watford may be in trouble over a forged bank letter could be seen as confirming the three teams to be relegated before the kids have gone out trick and treating.

When Gino Pozzo became owner of the London club in 2014 part of the due diligence required by the Football League was proof that the company taking over, in this case Hornets Investment Limited, had sufficient funds to bankroll the running of the club. This guarantee was provided in the form of a letter from HSBC Premier which it has now come to light was not genuine.

Whilst Watford should be punished for supplying falsified financial information to the football league, and penalties touted have included fines and points deductions, what amazes me is the level of incompetence which seems to be at the cored of the English game. After the Big Sam fiasco, we now have another English national footballing body which seems to have only a passing interest in ensuring they verify what they are being told is in fact the truth and whether it would be good for the game and if you dig deeper into the story the English Football League’s grasps of the basic facts of business become evidently naïve.

Hornets Investment Limited first application of proof of funds was rejected by the Football League because the club submitted an out of date document from a different back, Credit Suisse. Didn’t anyone hear the alarm bells when a two year old banking letter was provided as proof of current funds? Then when Hornets Investment Limited reapplied didn’t anyone bother to wonder why the letter came from a different bank? I understand companies change the bank they deal with but wouldn’t you wonder why the original application was accompanied by a letter from a bank which is not the one you are now saying you bank with? And arm of HSBC which must be noted does not deal with corporate customers!

Finally, even if you had failed to hear the cacophony of alarm bells now resounding, there is a telephone number on the forged letter. How hard could it be to pick up the phone and ask one simple question?

And what of Watford’s punishment? Before fans of Burnley, Hull, Swansea or Sunderland get too excited, even if Watford are proven guilty, I doubt their punishment will have any impact on the final Premier League table. They will no doubt be fined and I would hope that they are docked points, a lot of points, but this is an English Football League investigation and I would be surprised if the Premier League, which is a separate organisation, would accept any points deduction handed out by their counterparts. This would mean that any points deduction would have to be held over until the club returns to the English Football League.

Could Watford survive this suspended sentence if they got relegated? With the parachute payments which are on offer to clubs that get relegated I have no doubt but if the points deduction is sufficiently large it would mean Watford would not be able to bounce back at the first attempt. The final question would then be would the current owners hang around a team that is going nowhere? After being allowed to massage their vanity, as the owner of a Premier League club, they will be able to walk away, if they wish, throwing their toy to the wayside as they depart unpunished.

I hope they wouldn’t but if I was a fan of Watford I would be dreading the day you ever got relegated from the Premier League.