If Watford’s league season ends up having peaked early against Liverpool in December, and it’s starting to look that way, then it’s not a bad abiding memory of the 2015-16 season to have and cherish, is it? Handsome home wins over the mighty Liverpool are not to be sniffed at.
It’s not been quite all downhill since but it’s fair to say the form has tailed off somewhat; two wins, seven blanks and only nine goals in the 13 subsequent matches. Odion Ighalo and Nathan Ake got the goals on that crisp afternoon before Christmas but our man of the match was Almen Abdi. He wasn’t as jaw-dropping as Etienne Capoue was against West Ham United, as good for the cameras as Heurelho Gomes was against Chelsea at home or like the wrecking ball Troy Deeney was against Crystal Palace. But it was still one of our individual performances of the season.
“It wasn’t only me that day, it was the whole team,” said Abdi. A more modest guy you are unlikely to find. “We didn’t give them any chances.”
Ake and Ighalo took theirs and so did Abdi in front of the man who coached his beloved Borussia Dortmund.
“Obviously playing against Klopp…maybe I was extra motivated,” Abdi said. “I thought before the game about speaking to him but after the game, after a 3-0 defeat, I didn’t think he’d want to know if I was a Dortmund fan.”
You are probably right, Almen. The usually jocular Klopp wasn’t in the greatest of moods afterwards.
Abdi had the chance to see how Dortmund were shaping up post-Klopp in the Europa League second leg against Tottenham Hotspur last week but had second thoughts, despite it being a short ride in his Mercedes from his Hampstead home to White Hart Lane.
“I was going to go but it is too cold and hopefully 3-0 will be enough,” he said. It turned out to be more than enough, Dortmund winning 2-1 to progress through to the last eight where they will meet Klopp’s Liverpool.
Watford still have to go to Anfield themselves and the date of Saturday, May 7 will be etched in Abdi’s diary or, more likely these days, saved on the calendar on his smartphone.
“It’s fantastic to experience the stadiums we’ve played in, the players we’ve played against,” said Abdi. “It’s just amazing. I always dreamt of it and now it’s like a dream come true.”
Abdi knows he is not guaranteed to start and, more than likely, will be among the substitutes at Anfield as he adjusts to life as a bit-part player under Quique Sanchez Flores having been one of the first names on the teamsheet since he joined.
However he might stand a fair chance of getting the nod at Liverpool’s citadel as Sanchez Flores has picked him in all the big away games, at the Etihad stadium, White Hart Lane, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Having said that, he’s started just two of the last nine in the league.
“I’m 29, I’ve been a professional for 12 years so I know exactly why I’m not playing,” said Abdi. “He has to pick 11 players out of 25 so I know exactly why. He tries to win the game and he thinks about the best 11 to win the game. It’s as easy as that.”
Abdi’s response will be music to Sanchez Flores’ ears and demonstrates why he’s not a moment’s bother around the place.
“It means I have to work hard,” he said. “You always have to show every day in training you should play and this is what I’m trying to do. I think this is fair. In the first 25 games I played every time. Now, the last few games I didn’t play that often. There is no problem with that. Like I said, it means I have to work harder every day. He [Quique] is a fantastic coach, the results say everything. We are working hard every day. We have a solid and organised team. He deserves every credit he gets.”
Abdi has, with seemingly minimal fuss, added tracking back to his other obvious talents. He’s has probably made more interceptions and tackles this season than he has threaded passes.
“It is harder than in the Championship and obviously this season I am playing in a different position,” Abdi said. “So it is harder to get into the final third because I have to work so much defensively. But this is what I have to improve. When the crosses come in I have to get into the box more. I have to be more aggressive. Up to now though I am happy with how the season has gone because I knew it would be harder. It’s physical and teams don’t press as much as the Championship teams but they are much more clever tactically. When we have the ball, the quality of the pass is very hard to defend, much harder than the Championship.”
The Premier League is also brutally unforgiving. Watford, for example, should have been celebrating their first ever league win at Old Trafford earlier this month but were sunk, in the cruelest of fashion, by Juan Mata’s sumptuous late free-kick.
“We were unlucky against United,” said Abdi. “Against the big teams we have to be clinical and we weren’t. If you get a chance you need to score. If you don’t then you are in trouble. Our target is 40 points but if we have 50 points, it’s much better. Maybe we can finish in the top ten. That would be nice, very nice.”
Wouldn’t it just. It should probably warrant another open-top bus parade but we know those don’t happen when you stay up, even though it will probably represent a far bigger achievement than winning promotion in the first place. Anyway, Abdi has got used to public transport of late. He travelled home from the 2-1 win at Selhurst Park by train with Sebastian Prodl.
“Lots of Watford fans spoke to us,” said Abdi. “It was nice and everyone was really friendly. There were some Palace fans who were not so friendly. But that’s football. They didn’t sing but we talked a lot with them.”
Fluent in four languages, Abdi is happy to talk the talk but Watford, with or without him in the side, need to start walking the walk after the international break to ensure their league season does not become more nervy than it should be.