First Team 4 weeks ago

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.

First Team 4 weeks ago

Foster: “We Were So Supremely Fit”

By Kevin Affleck

Ben Foster is getting the vibe that the Hornets are going to be in similar physical shape to last season when they started the campaign like a runaway train.

Javi Gracia’s primary objective last summer was to get his players in peak condition ahead of his first full season in charge and the move paid off handsomely as the Golden Boys rattled off five wins on the bounce, setting them up nicely for their highest ever Premier League finish and a thrilling run to the final of the FA Cup.

Foster is in no doubt that the foundations were laid during the gruelling summer months and reports there has been no real let-up again during this pre-season.

“Javi’s pre-seasons are pretty good, to be fair,” said the goalkeeper. “The outfield players work very hard and that was the one of the big pluses from last season in the way we started. We were so supremely fit. The lads just get on with and I’ve been at some clubs where people moan. You still get your moaners but here the lads just do it and that’s a credit to them.”

The players have been put through the mill in Austria, particularly on Monday when they churned out lap after lap of their training pitch at the foot of the Austrian mountains in Tyrol. There were members of the squad crawling off the pitch after that particular session.

“We do double sessions every day of the week,” said Foster. “The first day [of pre-season] was just testing and then it’s straight into hitting it hard. We have double sessions, a single session on a Saturday and then off on the Sunday to recover. That’s needed as everyone is on their hands and knees by the end of the week. The first three weeks are pretty hard as you’ve just had six or seven weeks off. You do your treadmill stuff, your gym stuff when you are off, or in my case preparing yourself by cycling up mountains, but nothing can prepare you for that first week and the aches that come with it. It’s a big shock to the system. It eases off after three weeks and you are then double session, single session, double session.”

The 36-year-old is now into his 18th year as a professional and he’s been there, done that and got just about every T-shirt. He’s seen just how the advent of sport science has changed how players are handled in pre-season.

“We used to be running up mountains and stuff – it was horrible, so it’s definitely changed,” he said. “The goalkeepers now have their own schedule and it’s fairly separate from the players. We’ll always join in towards the end when it comes to doing games and six-a-sides.”

Foster also loves how low key the Hornets’ tour is and how they can get the important base work done without too many distractions and sideshows. 

“The big Asia tours don’t really appeal to me,” said the former Manchester United goalkeeper. “We’ve come to Austria, the same place, the same hotel as last year. It’s a lovely place. The training ground is great, it’s a really nice set-up, it’s a lovely setting and there are mountains everywhere and stuff to keep you occupied. It’s exactly what you need and you can just focus on getting fitness in your legs and there are no temptations. You are not going out to be in bars and stuff.”