Pre-Season Report: Ajax 2-1 Watford
By Kevin Affleck
At the foot of the Austrian mountains, the Hornets began their ascent towards peak fitness and match sharpness with a defeat by the odd goal at the hands of Ajax.
The decorated Dutch side fielded five players who came within a whisker of reaching the Champions League final and yet the Hornets largely went toe-to-toe with them in what must rank as the highest-profile opening friendly the club has ever played.
Andre Gray put the Golden Boys in front towards the end of the first half with a penalty only for Donny van de Beek to equalise not long after half-time. Jurriën Timber won it for the Eredivisie champions at the death, but results at this embryonic stage of the campaign are largely irrelevant.
While nobody wants to get rolled over in pre-season and would love to ride on the back of the confidence a win would bring, there were more important matters at stake and bigger fish to fry.
Javi Gracia got 45 minutes into 22 members of his squad, nobody appeared to pick up an injury and the players got to put into practise a few tactical and technical things they have been working on in training. Most pleasing was the sight of Craig Dawson thundering on for his first appearance since signing from West Bromwich Albion, and you got an early sense of what he is all about when he threw himself heroically in front of a shot from Lasse Schöne.
It was tough going for the Hornets early on. Daryl Janmaat warned everyone that the Dutch giants would look to retain possession and he wasn’t wrong. Erik ten Hag’s side stroked the ball about so neatly that the Hornets weren’t allowed to string an attack together in the opposition half for 15 minutes.
The Golden Boys eventually got to grips with things and, slowly but surely, manoeuvred their way into the game. Tom Cleverley curled a free-kick just over the bar with the Hornets’ first attempt on goal and then, from his position on the left-hand side of midfield, got his head on the end of a cross from Janmaat.
Academy graduate Harry Forster was stationed on the other wing and he could easily have gone down under a challenge from Daley Blind on the right-hand edge of the box on 25 minutes but he boldly opted to stay on his feet.
Back came Ajax and they forced two saves in quick succession from Daniel Bachmann, one to either side to firstly deny Perr Schuurs, who had marauded forward from the back, and then a better one to deny Quincy Promes, the Holland forward signed from Sevilla this summer. Bachmann will have been pleased with his first 45 minutes back in a Watford shirt, especially keeping that all-important clean sheet.
Dominik Kotarski, the Ajax goalkeeper, wasn’t able to boast that at the break after he was beaten by a penalty from Gray. The club-record signing was quickest to pick up the loose ball after the referee pointed to the spot and he justified his confidence by tucking one into the bottom right-hand corner. More pleasing than Gray getting off the mark was the nice bit of interplay between Stefano Okaka, Gray and Abdoulaye Doucouré that led to the goal.
The entirely new XI rolled out for the second period were tasked with finding a similar level of cohesion as the team showed in that move, but an unchanged Ajax side took advantage of the restructure to get back on level terms when Van de Beek stroked one in from the edge of the box.
That annoyed Gracia and it certainly irked Nathaniel Chalobah who clattered into Schöne soon after, earning the England international the second yellow card of the game. The other was shown to Ryan Gravenberch for diving.
Soon after, Pontus Dahlberg stood nice and big for long enough to thwart Răzvan Marin who had pretty much found himself one-v-one with the Swedish goalkeeper and then Watford’s other Swede, Ken Sema, cracked one with his sweet left foot, forcing Kotarski to dive full length to his left to keep it out.
There was very little in the game thereafter and Ajax won it a minute from time through Timber, but nobody will remember this result once the season is in full swing.
First-half XI: Bachmann (GK); Janmaat, Mariappa (c), Cathcart, Masina; Cleverley, Doucouré, Capoue, Forster; Gray, Okaka.
Second-half XI: Dahlberg (GK); Femenía, Dawson, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes, Wilmot, Chalobah (c), Sema; Deulofeu, Success.