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IN FOCUS: The verdict on full La Liga debut of Abdoulaye Doucoure

It is not known exactly why Gino Pozzo fired Jose Sandoval from his position as head coach of Granada, the Spanish arm of the family’s football club portfolio. Four defeats on the spin and sitting rock bottom of the table probably had a fair amount to do with it. After watching Abdoulaye Doucoure run the show for Granada yesterday in the first game since Sandoval’s removal, his decision not to start the France Under-21 midfielder could also have been on the charge sheet.

Watford’s sporting director Luke Dowling was at pains to point out, when Doucoure was signed from Rennes for €6m and then farmed out straight away to Granada, that Watford would have no influence over Sandoval’s team selection and that he would be under no pressure to start Doucoure or, for that matter, Adalberto Penaranda who signed for Watford on the same day. Jose Gonzales was swiftly appointed as Sandoval’s successor and one of his first moves was? To hand Doucoure his first start, against Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.

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Doucoure and former coach Sandoval

In coming on as a substitute against Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, and then sitting unused on the bench in the final-straw game against Valencia, perhaps Doucoure was just being slowly integrated into life at Granada, much like most of the new signings painstakingly do under Quique Sanchez Flores at Watford. Whatever the reason it got the conspiracy theorists out there at it.

Doucoure certainly wasn’t suffering from any injury judging by the way he bestrode the pitch at the Estadio Riazor yesterday evening. Forget Penaranda and the Watford-bound Isaac Success – Doucoure was imperious in the 1-0 win that resuscitated Granada’s hopes of pulling off another act of escapology. He was the best player on the field by some distance. Quite what Sandoval was doing leaving him on the bench for his first three games as a Granada player only he will know.

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Wearing No16 on his back and playing on the right of a central midfield two, he was economical in possession throughout, recycling the ball well and breaking up play with immaculate timing and real precision. He was Valon Behrami, Ben Watson and Mario Suarez rolled into one athletic, leggy frame. If he was watching from home, which he probably was, Sanchez Flores would have loved the way he screened the back four and took up the position Watson does in the Watford team – that all important-area between the full-back and the centre-half when the ball is out wide and ready to be slung into the box.

Doucoure expertly stopped a neat exchange between Alex Bergantinos and Luisinho and was it at it again moments later, getting in an all-important toe to shut down a clever one-two between Bergantinos and Luisinho. He’s also quickly immersed himself in the team dynamic at Granada and was second on the scene to congratulate Youseff El Arabi after he converted a first-half penalty won by Penaranda. 

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Doucoure, 23, did so much more than just run around putting out fires. He showed a remarkable engine for someone playing his first 90 minutes since Rennes’ 4-2 win over Troyes on January 16. Just before the hour mark he sprinted 60 yards to support Penaranda on the counterattack and create an overlap, only for the teenage Venezuelan to ignore him in much the same way Odion Ighalo does to better-placed teammates.

“Doucoure has run 60 yards to be ignored. Penaranda was well within his rights to shoot but he has to hit the target,” said the co-commentator on Sky Sports who also remarked how, seconds later, Doucoure was back in his own penalty area snuffing out another Depor attack.

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Penaranda was hauled off straight after. Doucoure, meanwhile, lasted the distance and got better and stronger as the game wore on. In front of a crowd of nearly 24,000, Doucoure was the coolest man on the pitch when he executed a Cruyff-turn in his own box to get his team out of trouble. Growing in confidence, he then started to show off the full range of his passing, pinging a couple of left-to-right crossfield diagonals.

You wondered what Gonzales was playing at when Doucoure headed to the touchline when David Barral was readied to come on ten minutes from time, but it was Ruben Rochina who was asked to make way. Doucoure was just being summoned to pass on instructions and to take a well-earned drink of water. Sanchez Flores loves players who can help close out a game and Doucoure did just that in the 89th minute, showing maturity beyond his years to draw a foul following a collision with Diego Mainz and Ricardo Costa. It helped run the clock down and padlock a first win in six matches. Granada are next in action on Thursday, at home to Sporting Gijon. Gonzales daren’t leave him out.

“We have high hopes for him,” a club source told us this morning.

We bet they do. You can see why they brought forward their plans by six months to sign him amid interest from Liverpool.