Twelve months after Watford's sister club Udinese beat QPR 2-1 at nearby Stadion Villach Lind, the Austrian region of Carinthia is once again playing host to La Pozzo Famiglia.
Regaining match fitness and confidence in the first two outings, yesterday afternoon’s contest at the Drei-Lärchen Stadion presented a far greater assessment of both the Hornets and their supporters’ aspirations. Whereas SK Klagenfurt and SV Feldkirchen – like the club's Austrian hosts BSV Bad Bleiberg – play regional football, opponents FC Rubin Kazan have been storming the top tier of Russian football.
Though boasting only a marginally bigger fan base than the Hornets, having been promoted to the top flight for the first time in 2003, the Tatars finished third in their debut season in the Russian Premier League. Building steadily on this success – buoyed by the support of the city’s mayor – within a decade they’d amassed an enviable trophy cabinet.
Premier League titles in both 2008 and 2009 before the 2012 Russian Cup was secured following a close 1-0 win over Dynamo Moscow. Last season Rubin also moved into the state-of-the-art 45,000 Kazan Arena; a stadium which will now host matches for both the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup.
Though little advertising seemed to be in evidence, local interest in the fixture was evidently high as the teams arrived about an hour before kick-off; the Russians by coach, Watford walking over from their hotel just across the road. Joined by a modest group of travelling Hornets, villagers filled the bar and bleaches high above the pitch.
Enjoying the local hospitality above, below us the players were put through a relentless warm-up in the burning sunshine. Replicating the rigorous schedule, clearly this pre-season is set to be a testing preparation. As Gian Luca Nani kept a close eye on the organisation, Beppe Sannino moved purposefully between players and groups, giving each clear instruction as to their mission during the afternoon.
Having taken this on board, the first half was a very even encounter, with only a few chances actually coming close. Whilst Troy Deeney had a goal ruled out by the ref’s whistle, the Tatars skilful attacks created more of the openings. Thankfully our defence held their ground, feeding Daniel Toszer, Daniel Pudil and Cristian Battocchio to instigate the attacks, whist Heurelho Gomes ably dealt with every shot – however potent – that breached their lines. Before them Watford moved the ball quickly, demonstrating nice interplay between a familiar front three of Deeney, Matej Vydra and Fernando Forestieri.
Prompting a huge change for the second period – as the heavens opened – Watford made four telling substitutions. Clearly still weighing up the option for centre-back partnering, Sannino replaced Gabrielle Angella with Joel Ekstrand though I doubt too much could be gleaned from this as both appeared up to the test.
Pleasingly however, looking back to his old self Alemn Abdi stepped into Lewis McGugan’s role behind the front three; combining telling passes with deft interplay. Up front, saw the introduction of both Ikechi Anya and Lloyd Dyer, for Vydra and Forestieri. The latter had tailed off towards the interval after the referee was swayed by a theatrical left-back.
This incredible inject of pace evidently pleased the drenched fans far more than it did the “visiting” rear guard. If the evidence is anything to go by, Championship rivals will also be wary of this duo’s ability on he break.
Though no breakthrough was made by either side, Watford dominated the half, making most of the running, providing only a modicum of concern for the travelling ‘Orns in the closing moments. Whatever the anxieties at the end – or that are still lingering from the last campaign – optimism should be taken, this squad is coming together nicely and looks far better equipped to deal with the test ahead.
Some might argue that little should be taken from pre-seasons. However Watford comfortably proved they could match a premier league side – regularly involved in European football – for pace, power and precision. Composed and commandingly, they also did so literally in all weathers.
Watford: Gomes; Doyley (Brown 84), Tamas (Hoban 74), Angella (Ekstrand HT), Pudil (Doherty 86); Battocchio (Fabrini 83) Toszer (Murray 63); McGugan (Abdi HT); Forestieri (Anya HT); Deeney (Ranegie 75), Vydra (Dyer HT).
You can follow Ashley Greb on Twitter @putajumperon