After Man City and Brighton’s FA Cup semi-final struggled under weight of nerves, Watford and Wolves dared to dream and produced a thriller.
As the atmosphere inside Wembley cranked up to a raucous rumble before kick-off, the contrast between Watford and Wolves’ FA Cup semi-final showdown and Saturday’s meeting between Manchester City and Brighton and Hove Albion was already stark.
City versus Brighton was all about what could each team could lose – Pep Guardiola’s men having no margin for any error in their improbable bid for a clean sweep of trophies, while the Albion faithful contemplated a heavy thumping at the national stadium.
“It could go badly, we could lose 8-0,” one Seagulls fan pondered aloud at Wembley Park station before the match.
That same London Underground stop was not a place for cautious contemplation on Sunday, but a carnival of gold, yellow, black and – in the case of Raul Jimenez’s admirers from the midlands – numerous ponchos.
“I wasn’t born the last time Watford reached the FA Cup final,” a supporter told a Wolves counterpart as the train pulled in to the venue where Everton saw off Graham Taylor’s side in 1984. His new friend was similarly unable to dredge up memories of Molineux’s greatest era, one that concluded with a league title in 1959 and an FA Cup win in 1960.
This game was about what each team could gain in a very winnable encounter for both. It was about dreams to be lived and realised.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 7, 2019
The bustling wing-back Jonny went close inside the opening 30 seconds for Wolves and Joao Moutinho rippled the top of the netting with a free-kick.
Purists have grumbled over the clubs’ unconventional structures – Watford part of the Pozzo family’s football empire, while Wolves’ Chinese billionaire-funded transfer policy has close ties to Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes – but these are two teams reaping the benefits of clearly defined plans on and off the field in the Premier League.
As such, neither were overawed here and it made for an undulating classic. Watford shrugged off Wolves’ enterprising start and got to work.
Javi Gracia has put together a side for all situations. Where Troy Deeney and Andre Gray unleash a brand of bulldozing harassment upon central defenders, Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra bring flourish and creative style. Abdoulaye Doucoure has a little bit of all of the above and, of course, there was Gerard Deulofeu packing twinkling star quality on the bench
Gray fluffed his lines with the game goalless, volleying over as Wolves’ offside trap collapsed in on itself before Nuno Espirito Santo’s men emerged from a relative lull.
Veteran Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes kept out Leander Dendoncker’s well-hit drive. His defenders thanked him by switching off from the resulting corner and Matt Doherty gave Wolves a 36th-minute lead.
Among the riotous celebrations for the Republic of Ireland international’s goal, sombreros could be seen tossed in the air. This was a fancy dress outlay that demanded Jimenez get in on the act – and with his own costume to boot.
When their hero’s goal arrived it was one worth waiting for. Jimenez’s chest control, awareness of space and dead-eyed finish on the volley was classically brilliant centre-forward play. If that sounds too conventional, don’t worry. He stuck on a Mexican wresting mask to celebrate.
— Wolves (@Wolves) April 7, 2019
The worry for Wolves at that point was Deeney’s habit of being a main protagonist in any story worth telling about Watford over recent years. Surely his moment would arrive.
When minimal contact from Dendoncker sent him tumbling deep into stoppage time, those pre-match quotes about not being excited by an FA Cup semi-final played deliciously into the anti-hero moment.
Deeney stood over the ball – his previous comments regarding bottle and character ready to slap him in the cojones. He strode forward and crashed a violent strike past John Ruddy. He looked quite excited.
As did Deulofeu after he scampered around Conor Coady and deftly picked out the bottom corner in extra time. That was Watford’s third shot on target, part three of a dramatic heist and an incredible 3-2 victory.
It means a generation of Watford fans will now have a cup final appearance in living memory, Gomes will finish his career on the grandest stage against Manchester City in May and Deeney will be able to fool absolutely no one when it comes to describing excitement levels.