ON the face of it, Watford against Wolverhampton Wanderers may not, to outsiders, look the most enticing FA Cup semi-final. Be honest: can you remember what happened when they played each other in the league this season?
ut there is another sense in which it is the perfect semi-final. These are two teams who have outstripped expectations this seasons. Both could yet finish seventh, but for fans, you suspect, this is the real reward.
These are not clubs for whom a trip to Wembley has become wearily familiar, even if Watford were there in 2016: for them the occasion will have a magic of its own, will be something to be remembered for decades.
The lads were simply unstoppable after the break.
— Watford Football Club (@WatfordFC) April 2, 2019
Wembley Way may be nothing more than an unusually wide pedestrianised street through a bland business park on the north edge of London, but for supporters who have seen it only on television, who have dreamed of taking part in the ritual, it is far more than simply a line of over-priced burger vans overseen by a doomsday preacher (he didn’t bother with the Checkatrade on Sunday, but you assume he’ll be back this weekend).
Wolves stand a point above Watford in the Premier League, although their form seems to have claimed far more media attention this season.
That perhaps is because they are newly promoted and novelty always adds spice to a story, but it’s probably also because their performances against the top sides have been so striking. Wolves have lost only three times in nine league games against members of the top six, as well as putting Liverpool and Manchester United out of the FA Cup.
That says much about their style of play. They are well-organised defensively and break with structure and purpose. Only Leicester and Bournemouth have scored more goals than them on the counter-attack this season. But they do need teams to come at them. Wolves have also lost five in nine against teams in the current bottom six of the Premier League, a record that includes being the victims of two of Huddersfield’s three wins this season. They at times struggle when faced with a massed defence to break down.
Only one team in it in the second half. #wolves we’re resolute, disciplines and clinical. Could and should have been more.
— Wolves Fancast (@WWFCFancast) April 2, 2019
The statistics are remarkable. Of the 14 league games in which Wolves have had more than 50 per cent possession this season, they’ve won four and lost six. Of the 17 in which their opponents have had more of the ball, they’ve won eight and lost five.
Even more striking is the fact that there have been 11 games in which Wolves have had less than 40 per cent possession, they’ve won five and lost just two, one of those the 3-0 defeat at Manchester City in which Willy Boly was sent off after 19 minutes.
Looking ahead to Sunday, the bad news for Wolves is that Watford are not a team who tend to dominate possession. Like Wolves, they have had an average of 47.1 per cent possession in the Premier League this season. That said, they do play an aggressive offside trap at times and have a tendency to get caught on the counter.
It’s a testament to how well Watford have done this season that there’s no expectation that Javi Gracia will be replaced as manager. He’s already been in charge for longer than anybody since Gianfranco Zola, who left the job in 2013.
Silverware may not necessarily be the priority for Watford’s owners, but reaching an FA Cup final would cement his popularity as well as offering a reminder than football is not just about the balance sheet.
Man City – 7/20
Wolves – 9/2
Watford – 8/1
Brighton – 16/1
Bet on your winner here https://t.co/lX2mm59xHO
— Unibet (@unibet) March 17, 2019
And that’s really why this is the ideal semi-final. There are many reasons why the FA Cup doesn’t carry the same sense of awe as it used to but one of the most grating is the feeling that it just doesn’t matter that much for the teams who habitually contest its latter stages.
For the superclubs, it’s just another day, a semi or a final that will soon be forgotten. Watford and Wolves aren’t massive outsiders who’ve fluked their way to this stage: they’ve played well this season and will have at least a chance whoever they play in the final, and that matters in terms of the spectacle. But most of all, they are teams who will relish being at Wembley and, in modern football, that is perhaps rarer than it ought to be.
(And the answer to that earlier question: they’ve only played once so far, at Molineux, where goals in the 20th and 21st minutes from Etienne Capoue and Roberto Pereyra gave Watford a 2-0 win.)