The toughest test so far, as City reluctantly travel to Watford

Watford vs Bradford City match preview (League Cup second round)

@Vicarage Road on Tuesday 28 August, 2012

By Gareth Walker

I think that it would be fair to say that when Bradford City drew Watford away in the Capital One Cup Second Round, it wasn’t the tie that we were hoping for and the groans of many could be heard from a great distance away.

After a hard fought extra time victory against Notts County in the last round, we could be forgiven for hoping that we would be rewarded with a more glamorous tie, as most of the Premiership sides entered the competition.

There was great scope for a good draw with a handful of relatively local teams going into the hat too: including Leeds, Huddersfield, Burnley, Blackburn and Bolton. Even if a draw against a top flight team or a local derby wasn’t possible, we would have at least settled for a home draw to give us a more favourable chance of progressing.

Furthermore, the fact that we played Watford in the FA Cup at Vicarage Road as recently as last January meant that this was arguably the least exciting draw possible for City. Nevertheless, a trip back down the motorway is what the football Gods decided for us, and it gives us a chance to avenge that 4-2 defeat.

Back in January, City acquitted themselves admirably and, but for a late disallowed Ross Hannah effort, would have only lost by the one goal. The fact that it was an FA Cup 3rd round tie and that it was on a Saturday meant that we took a decent following and most fans went home reasonably happy with the performance – although most were in agreement that The Hornets were a class above us and were able to step things up a gear when needed.

Both teams have undergone significant changes in the months since we last met.

Back at the turn of the year, City were just coming off their best run of form of the season and Phil Parkinson fielded a first choice XI as he attempted to keep the run going. Unfortunately, the defeat brought about a turnaround of form that saw us slip into another relegation battle.

We have, of course, since seen a big turnaround in personnel with 11 summer signings as Parkinson has built “his own team”. This has resulted in the much-talked about new wave of optimism that we are experiencing, as expectation has changed from avoiding relegation to the more optimistic hopes of promotion.

Watford too have experienced similar changes. Gianfranco Zola has replaced Sean Dyche as manager after a takeover by the Italian Pozzo family. Watford seem to have joined the clutch of clubs at that level where a change of ownership into foreign hands and an influx of cash is seen as the way forward. Of course this has brought about their own plethora of new signings, as Zola has transformed the squad that he inherited. With it comes a change in expectations as the owners and supporters will look to drastically improve on last year’s 11th place finish.

Although the season is only in its embryonic stages, the start has been promising for both sides. Having seen all three of City’s league games so far, I am quietly optimistic for the season ahead. Two wins out of three, with an unfortunate defeat away at pace setters Gillingham sees us with six points out of a possible nine.

Watford also have six points out of nine and sit in the play off places in the Championship. Their only defeat was a 1-0 home loss to an Ipswich side who scored the winner in the 90th minute.

With both teams’ priorities being the league, it could make team selection interesting tonight. Will the two managers attempt to keep the good form, fluidity and understanding of the players going, or will they chose to rotate their options so as to avoid injuries and rest key individuals?

When looking around the City XI, it is easy to see that nobody has let us down so far. Matt Duke looks a different keeper to last season having made some impressive saves, and we may finally be seeing what Parkinson saw in him, now that he has a full pre-season under his belt. However, Parkinson has spoken about how closely he thinks our two goalkeepers are matched and, if he does to decide to rest players, Jon McLaughlin is bound to come in.

In defence Steven Darby was impressive at right back down at Gillingham and in my mind has been unfortunate to be the one sacrificed in order to accommodate the returning Andrew Davies. City’s number five has put in two great performances against Fleetwood, where he marshalled Jon Parkin admirably, and also against Wimbledon, where the Dons’ front two were comfortably their two best players.

With Luke Oliver, James Meredith and Rory McArdle, our defence has looked solid, unflustered and experienced. Numerous observers have commented that all four of these defenders would be comfortable playing at a higher level. Now could be their chance to prove so, unless Darby and new signing Carl McHugh are given a chance tonight.

The midfield has been where City have been particularly impressive so far. Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle have been immense in these early stages of the season and have each been rewarded with the sponsor’s Man of the Match award in the last two matches. The fact that Doyle has been substituted mid-way through the second half in each of the last two games shows that he is still working his way back to fitness, and it remains to be seen whether he is ready to play two games in four days. Jones, on the other hand, at 35-years-old, looks to be in great shape – and I would be surprised if our stand-in captain is rested.

On the wings, Kyel Reid and Zavon Hines have provided a real threat to the opposition in our last two fixtures, but the fact that Hines and Garry Thompson are both still working towards full fitness may see Thompson get the nod at Vicarage Road. Will Atkinson too, who has been quietly impressive so far, stands by if Parkinson decides to make more than one change across the midfield.

With Ritchie Jones and Ricky Ravenhill absent for the medium term through injury, there is also talk doing the rounds that City may look at the loan market to bring some cover into the engine room. This is an issue that brings about a debate in itself, as many of us would prefer to see youngsters Scott Brown or Forrayah Bass given their opportunity for an odd game here and there.

Up front, James Hanson and Nahki Wells appear to have continued where they left off last season, and I have also been particularly impressed with Alan Connell’s work rate and ability at holding the ball up. We are yet to see Hannah or Adam Baker in  the league this season and, if changes are made to City’s strike force, Parkinson has plenty of options to chose from.

All in all, Watford are bound to be City’s toughest test of the season so far; although the team selection of both managers will tell us more about what we can take from the game. Indeed, our trip to League Two promotion hopefuls Rotherham on Saturday will no doubt give us the best indication yet of where we are – and what we should expect from the 2012/13 season.

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