Pre-Season Report: Bayer Leverkusen 1-2 Watford
By Kevin Affleck
Andre Gray will be able to head into the season on the back of goals against the Champions League semi-finalists and a top four Bundesliga side after he made it two in two in the impressive win over Bayer Leverkusen this afternoon.
The club-record signing got one from the spot after starting against Ajax on Thursday and here got one off the bench, showing he is a versatile striker for all situations and a terrific weapon for Head Coach Javi Gracia.
Whereas he got the first a couple of days ago, only to see Ajax cancel that goal out with two in the second half, he got the killer second here on the banks of Lake Zell. If the Hornets had not played a higher profile first friendly than they did against Ajax the other night then they surely hadn’t fielded a side at a more picturesque venue than this.
Apart from the view, Gracia will also have seen plenty else that was pleasing on the eye. The Hornets had a nice compact shape about them; Étienne Capoue showed signs that last season is going to be no flash in the pan; Troy Deeney eased himself nicely back in after an illness-hit week while Gerard Deulofeu was a livewire when the opportunities arose. And then there was the confidence only a win can bring and yet more minutes under the belt for nearly all the squad.
On a roasting afternoon when it must have been tempting to play at walking pace, the Hornets were really at it. Capoue set the tone with a great early sliding interception that caught Lars Bender by surprise and the rest followed the lead set by the 2018/19 Player of the Season.
Christian Kabasele made a terrific tackle to stop Bender playing in Kai Havertz; the Belgian then produced a flying header to prevent a cross from Mitchel Weiser reaching its target and then, not to be outdone, his centre-half partner Craig Dawson joined in by producing an agile interception to stop Kevin Volland getting in. Will Hughes also had a bit of a set-to with Kerem Demirbay, while Stefano Okaka was later booked for knocking over his marker, so not everything was so friendly about this one.
The goal-mouth action was largely at a premium, largely because you had to expend so much energy getting there. Paulinho, the Brazilian teenager, smashed one over and another wide while the sprightly Deulofeu got himself into a terrific position down the right but instead of whipping one in like he did against Huddersfield at home last season and Chelsea the season before, he overcooked one and it almost went out for a throw.
The team were far more clinical eight minutes before half-time. Deulofeu played in Deeney down the right. The captain smartly waited for support and then astutely picked out the run into the box of Will Hughes and the midfielder slid the ball past Lukas Hradecky. The Hornets probably should have had the chance to make it two very soon after, but referee Florian Jäger waved away Deulofeu’s claims for a foul in the box by Wendell. Deulofeu couldn’t believe it wasn’t given.
Heurelho Gomes was one of nine half-time changes and he was in the thick of things within two minutes, producing a two-handed palm to deflect a shot from Demirbay behind for a corner. It was one more save than Ben Foster had to make in the entire first half. The Brazilian was at it again a few minutes later, diving low to his right to turn a shot from Volland round the post and then denying the 2015 Under-21 European Championship Silver Boot winner from the subsequent well-worked corner.
His work in between the sticks was rewarded just minutes later when Gray was able to put the team two goals in front by pouncing on a mistake from Hradecky and slamming the ball into the roof of the net from just inside the box.
You hoped it might be plain sailing thereafter, but Leverkusen had too much quality for the Hornets to have things all their own way. Moussa Diaby halved the arrears with one that had more than a whiff of handball about it on 66 minutes and the Hornets had to have their wits about them from then on. It took a block from Adrian Mariappa, another save from Gomes, and a skewed clearance over the bar from Craig Cathcart to keep the Germans at bay.
It was just the sort of way the team is going to be forced to hold on this season in a Premier League game, so the experience of this one will stand them in good stead.
FIRST-HALF XI: Foster (GK); Femenía, Dawson (Mariappa 41), Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Doucouré, Sema; Deulofeu, Deeney (c).
SECOND-HALF XI: Gomes (GK); Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa (c), Masina; Forster, Capoue (Sema 71), Wilmot, Cleverley; Okaka, Gray.