By Matt Rowson
"Conference side Scarborough have the plum draw, however, hosting Premiership big guns Chelsea... assuming, of course, that they beat Southend United in their replayed third round tie next Wednesday"
Jonathan Pearce, BBC Radio 5 Live, 05/01/04
Now, I'm not completely stupid (despite all the evidence to the contrary). If the odds were long last Saturday, they've disappeared into the distance now. No question.
But surely we deserve more than this. Our heroic, bloody-minded draw last Saturday might prove to be no more than a passport to a gubbing at Stamford Bridge (and the much-discussed bonus payday) but surely it's earned us a little respect? Surely a throwaway "...assuming that, as expected, they beat Watford at Stamford Bridge" isn't too much to ask?
It's not just been Pearce, either. The Rivals network sports a(nother) mindless, pointless poll investigating which of the big guns are most likely to go out in Round Four. Chelsea in there, obviously. Nigel Spackman didn't pay Southend the respect of acknowledging their continuing hand in proceedings either, gushing at banal length on Sky about how Scarborough against Chelsea is the sort of tie that the Cup is all about. Most enticingly of all, Sky have picked the Fourth Round tie as one of their two to televise. Southend United versus Watford anyone? Try talking that one up, Keys, you muppet.
So how will Wednesday's game differ from the one at Vicarage Road? The change in venue will undoubtedly have an impact... the Stamford Bridge turf is presumably a little smoother (not to mention more plentiful) than ours. Have to confess to being mildly irritated by the emphasis placed upon the quality of our pitch in reviews of the first game... as if some excuse had to be offered for Chelsea's failure to win. The pitch was poor, but looked worse than it played and certainly wasn't in the league of the sandpit on which Chelsea beat Charlton last season, rendering the muted complaint a little hypocritical.
No more justified was the prominence which Heidar's "goal" received in coverage, topical in the cyclical and tedious "use of technology" debate though it was. The linesman's inexplicable call may have been extremely fortunate from our point of view, but no more fortunate than Chelsea had been a few seconds earlier when Helguson's fabulous but unchallenged header was half-an-inch too high to go in "properly"... if you don't want to risk conceding goals, try preventing crosses or marking in the box. Nor should the Blues stake too much on a Frank Lampard shot taking a kind deflection this time around.
We'll be outnumbered in the stands this time, of course, but our allocation is reasonable, if only belatedly. 4,500 Watford tickets had been reported as sold by Saturday evening, and even stretched and spread out that's more than enough to balance the atmosphere a bit. Added to which away support is universally more bloody-minded and less critical than home support, which should work in our favour on two levels.
As far as personnel is concerned, three Chelsea names will have been recently rendered unavailable... two of whom featured in the game at Vicarage Road, one who did not. The latter is of course Hernan Crespo, who came back too early from a calf injury and limped off (and out for at least a month) during Chelsea's defeat to Liverpool. The other two, Celestine Babayaro and Geremi, fly out to join their international squads on Wednesday in preparation for the African Nations' Cup in Tunisia later in the month. Incidentally, I hope that whoever is maintaining the file against David Pleat took plenty of notes over the last few weeks' of Kanouté-based wrangling. What a tosser.
Back in contention is Carlo Cudicini... a much better shot-stopper than Sullivan, but not the most confident in the air; we can only hope that Heidar shakes off his thigh injury by Wednesday evening.
Glen Johnson was one of few in the Chelsea side to impress in the first game, but Mario Melchiot was back in the side and looked solid during Sunday's win at Leicester. With Babayaro gone, Wayne Bridge looks certain to come back in at left-back.
In the centre of defence, Marcel Desailly being taken to the cleaners by Heidar was the highlight of the first leg; one assumes that John Terry's aerial strength will be employed on Wednesday evening, rather negating any benefit gleaned from resting him at Vicarage Road. William Gallas dropped to the bench on Sunday alongside Robert Huth.
With Geremi missing and Duff, Veron and Petit still not ready, the midfield four will almost certainly be Frank Lampard, whose form has been consistently high during Chelsea's ropey spell and who's likely to be followed around by Gavin Mahon again, one assumes, Claude Makelele, Jesper Gronkjaer and Joe Cole, whose encounters with Paul Devlin down that flank could get a bit feisty. Mario Stanic could be in line for a place on the bench.
Up front, Crespo's absence means it's probably two from three... Gudjohnsen, Hasselbaink and Mutu, the last two of whom found their goalscoring boots again during the win at Leicester.
Speaking of which... you can't rely on bloody Leicester for anything, can you? The one occasion when you want them to be aggressive, violent and provocative and they go down 4-0 without as much as a booking to trouble Uriah Rennie with. Chelsea's victory, only their second in eight games, we could probably have done without, but the defeat to Liverpool during the week was perhaps more instructive... another side keeping the game narrow and tight, another side who Chelsea failed to impose themselves upon. Okay, we're not Liverpool... but Chelsea still appear to have problems when they run out of space, and that win at Leicester might work in our favour in relegating Wednesday's game back to a formality in Chelsea minds. At least one unofficial site already has "Scarborough/Southend away (FAC4)" next to January 24th on its fixture list.
Like the first time round the odds are long, in fact longer still. Like the first time round, it's all about pushing the odds back towards even money in as many ways as possible. Again, this means maintaining a complete racket from the Watford end. As Gimli observes in 'The Return of the King'... "Certainty of death... (or) small chance of success.... what are we waiting for?"
If nothing else, maintaining the volume level ought to remind Jonathan Pearce that we're still around. He and the others who have prematurely decided the outcome of this fixture have made one central miscalculation. Their judgment is based on the fact that a cash-strapped First Division club from Hertfordshire can't possibly be as good as Chelsea's millionaires.
Their miscalculation is that we don't need to be as good as Chelsea.
We just need to beat them.