Monday 19 August 2019

Deulofeu lives up to leading man billing with cracking cameo display

Sting in the tail: Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu chips the ball into the top corner to spark an unlikely revival in yesterday’s FA Cup semi-final victory against Wolves. Photo: Reuters
Sting in the tail: Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu chips the ball into the top corner to spark an unlikely revival in yesterday’s FA Cup semi-final victory against Wolves. Photo: Reuters

Oliver Brown

On days like these, Gerard Deulofeu does not wear his heritage as a child prodigy lightly.

First, this mercurial winger, defying tight marking and a standing start, sparks Watford's revival with a lazy lob that is not so much opportunistic as a wondrous feat of geometry. Then, with Wolves' composure visibly ebbing in a frantic finale, he delivers the deftest winner, leaps on to an advertising hoarding and strikes a pose, showboating in front of opposition fans like a peacock in full plumage.

Watford, he can rest assured, will afford him any indulgence after this.

Few careers hatched in the hothouse of Barcelona's La Masia academy produce subsequent chapters at Vicarage Road, but the jubilant thousands in black and yellow were last night profoundly thankful Deulofeu was one of theirs.

Catalyst

The Spaniard did not start this game and, after suffering a knock to his ankle, he did not even finish it, but in the 46 intervening minutes he turned a cameo appearance into a star turn, becoming a catalyst for one of the FA Cup's most famous fightbacks.

For all that he produced sumptuous party tricks with the ball at his feet, he turned almost bashful the moment the final whistle heralded Watford's advance to a first final for 35 years.

"I'm just proud to help the team," he smiled.

Therein, perhaps, lies the Deulofeu enigma. In the decorated days of his youth he was feted as one of the finest talents in Europe, on the cusp of Barcelona's first team by the age of 18 and the winner of a European Under-19 title a few months later. And yet he has left a succession of managers at a loss to know what to do with him.

Ronald Koeman never appeared convinced by his contributions at Everton, while Unai Emery declared, during Deulofeu's ill-starred loan spell at Sevilla, that he lacked both maturity and the capacity for sacrifice.

Deulofeu, for his part, has seldom been shy of advertising his abilities.

When he tries to be diplomatic, he claims that he would prefer scrapping for a Europa League place with Watford than struggling to fulfil expectations at Barcelona. But when the mask slips, he can talk wistfully of a return to Catalonia, back among the world-class team-mates he was once thought destined to emulate.

Once, Deulofeu attracted that familiar, breathless billing as 'the new Messi'. It was a label that weighed heavily, at least until this stunning display reminded any detractors that at 25, he still had much to give.

It is one of Deulofeu's regrets that he never had the chance to flourish under Pep Guardiola, only making two substitute appearances in the manager's final season at the Nou Camp. An FA Cup final date with Guardiola's Manchester City promises, belatedly, a reunion of sorts.

"He is a very special coach," he reflected. "I'm very grateful for the opportunities he gave me."

To judge by the lingering embrace he received from Javi Gracia on the touchline, Deulofeu has found at Watford a mentor who both understands and values him.

For all that he might have been piqued at not starting a match of this magnitude - "that's not important," he said, brushing the suggestion aside - he has a gift for turning such frustration into the richest flourishes.

As Gracia would concede, the decision to enrage Deulofeu by leaving him on the bench for the first hour served as powerful motivation. Left on the margins as punishment for an ineffectual showing against Fulham, he used the snub to seize centre stage once more. It was a masterstroke in reverse psychology.

Those Watford supporters making the short trip home on the Metropolitan Line were left with a day of indelible memories.

To think, some had the cheek to dub this the 'best of the rest' semi-final. True, Watford and Wolves might be duelling in the Premier League for no greater glory than a seventh-place finish, but this occasion still exuded a certain old-school glamour.

Glamour

While Watford were seeking to rekindle the joys of 1984 - the occasion of their only other Cup final, which left then owner Elton John in tears at the rendition of Abide with Me - Wolves brought plenty of rock 'n' roll glamour themselves, in the form of Robert Plant.

The Led Zeppelin frontman was out on Wembley Way beforehand, dutifully posing for pictures. How could he resist?

Plant's devotion to the Wolves cause knows few bounds: he has long been a season-ticket holder in the Steve Bull Stand at Molineux, and despite turning down countless millions for a Zeppelin reunion tour, he performed at an end-of-season bash last summer to toast the club's promotion.

This time, alas, even his presence could not prevent Wolves' stairway to heaven from falling one flight short.

Irish Independent

The Throw-In All-Ireland Hurling Final preview: Can Tipp's firepower edge clash with the Cats?

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport