By Kevin Affleck
Start making your FA Cup out of tin foil, get to the club shop and purchase your hat and scarf and nail down what time you are going to get to the Green Man. The preparations for the big one at Wembley can now well and truly start after Will Hughes got the party started early with a goal that belonged on a stage as grand as the home of English football.
There have been an extraordinary amount of goal-of-the-season contenders this season, from Roberto Pereyra at home to Palace, Brighton and away at Wolves. To Troy Deeney’s at Cardiff and Domingos Quina’s efforts against Reading and Cardiff. But this effort from Hughes, smashed in on the volley from 18 yards with immaculate technique, surely tops the lot. “Hughesy for England,” chorused the home fans who will remember this howitzer for some time to come.
Knowing Javi Gracia he’ll probably favour the third goal, created brilliantly by Andre Gray and converted by Troy Deeney to seal the game, as it reflects the team ethic and collegiate approach he is constantly preaching, but it says much about the progress of the team when we are debating the merits of goals five days ahead of an FA Cup semi-final.
Apart from the concession of a cheap goal in the first half, this represented just about the perfect night for Gracia. The team continued its daring pursuit of seventh place with a handsome win that did wonders for their goal difference, they racked up their biggest home win of the season, established some all-important momentum and, crucially, didn’t appear to pick up any injuries.
The Head Coach relishes a selection headache and he will love the fact Gray has given him a major one ahead of Sunday. The club-record signing again did the business coming off the bench, this time setting up goals for Deeney and Kiko Femenía. In fact, it was Gray’s shot that led to the corner for Hughes’ goal. He is banging on the door very loudly. Gerard Deulofeu will be justified in sweating over his place.
Gray provided the energy after coming off the bench to transform a lifeless performance by the team in the first half. It was a far cry from the energy and intensity they played with at Old Trafford and there was definitely half an eye on Wembley.
The first 45 was a tough watch. The tone was set early on when Craig Cathcart uncharacteristically let a pass roll under his foot. Ben Foster then smashed one of his sledge-hammer clearances straight at Aleksandar Mitrović, and even one of Étienne Capoue's telescopic legs failed to pinch the ball off Ryan Sessegnon. It was that type of half.
There were a couple of moments when you thought the Hornets might kick on, when they might spark into life, particularly when Deulofeu flashed one across the face of goal, when Pereyra produced a wonderful Cruyff turn to lose his man on the edge of the box and when Deeney flung himself at a cross from Femenía, but it never really happened.
Even when Abdoulaye Doucouré slammed in the opener with a cracking strike with his weaker left foot on 23 minutes, the Hornets still didn’t really get going, didn’t really kick on and go for the jugular. Gracia could sense his team weren’t at it and just minutes after he had screamed at his back four, Ryan Sessegnon was allowed to slide a pass between Cathcart and Adrian Mariappa for Ryan Babel to latch onto, round Foster and score. It had been coming.
There was the odd boo at half-time, which was a touch harsh but that spoke of the standard the fans have come to expect this season and the players didn’t need to be told by Gracia at half-time they had dipped below it.
Gracia responded by making a double half-time substitution, hooking Deulofeu and Pereyra for Daryl Janmaat and Gray. Straight away, Gray and Deeney linked up on the edge of the box while Janmaat clattered Tom Cairney. The more aggressive approach started to catch on as soon after José Holebas nipped in front of Cyrus Christie and drove forward, nutmegging him on the way. Mariappa then climbed all over Mitrović to win a towering header. This was more like it.
With Holebas playing more like a left-winger, the Hornets were on the front foot and they won the game with three goals in 12 devastating second-half minutes. Hughes slammed in number two in-off the crossbar; Gray then teed-up his big mate Deeney and then repeated the trick to allow Femenía to crash in his first of the season. The Hornets were running amok and it could have been five had Sergio Rico not brilliantly turned one destined for the bottom from Holebas round the post.
There was still time for Foster to pull off another stunning save with his outstretched left hand to keep out Jean Michaël Seri, while Gray came so close to getting the goal his lively second-half performance so deserved. But perhaps he’s saving one for Wembley on Sunday. Que Sera Sera.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Femenía, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue (Quina 78), Doucouré, Pereyra (Janmaat h-t); Deeney, Deulofeu (Gray h-t).
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Sema, Kabasele, Masina.