By Dan Davis (@dan_davis20)
At Vitality Stadium, football is yet again the real winner.
AFC Bournemouth vs Watford: a Championship clash of yesteryear. The former were once ruthlessly torn to pieces by the swashbuckling, incisive showing of a Hornets side basking in the sunlight of late 2013.
Sniffing out the back of the net is becoming something of a comforting familiarity between these two sides, despite the vastly different circumstances of the present day.
One of the managers is different, perhaps part of the endless carousel of tacticians that stride through the Vicarage Road entrance just as swiftly as they are sent away, or something much more substantial. Watford even boast a new look side on the backend of some extensive surgery. And instead of the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Championship, it is now the untold riches of the Premier League that graces the immaculate surface at these two football clubs.
The approach in the capital and on the south coast is almost comparable; both outfits yearn to keep the ball on the deck and string together exhilarating passages of play to blow away their opponents. Both thrive on taking risks, the kind that has the capacity to enrage and then thrill supporters just as quickly. Neither quite know when to admit defeat, a characteristic that has seen many a last-gasp point saved and savoured.
It would even be fair to conclude that neither Bournemouth nor Watford will be banished to the plummeting depths of the second tier come May-time. The philosophy they both share will centre around progression, an attempt to better their achievements from previous campaigns spent embedding amongst the so-called big boys.
The thrilling 3-3 draw under the floodlights at Vitality Stadium perfectly surmised this, with both competitors destined to scrap blow for blow in the mouths of seemingly never-ending goalposts. They were to gratefully gobble up six goals in a mouth-watering feast of Premier League football at its very best and worst, before the full-time whistle confirmed the spoils were to be shared.
The battle may be over, but the rest of the war is still thankfully yet to come. It is a war fought with elegance, brains rather than brawn. And its latest battleground was firmly nestled inside a seaside town still reminiscing about when their football heroes were scrapping for survival at the very foot of the Football League. They are still, understandably so, living the dream, and another thrilling chapter of football saw Bournemouth’s hopes of another successful season take a further boost.
Watford, however, may feel they should have sauntered away back to London with all three points, rather than just one. Spaniard Javi Gracia has instilled a visible, newfound belief that it’s acceptable to string together flowing moves in the top flight, rather than aimlessly hoisting the ball forward – an archaic move straight from the playbook of many sides who have sleepwalked to relegation.
Their confidence was on full show against Bournemouth, who were sucker punched with a brutal, two-goal volley that firmly placed the visitors in control inside 27 minutes.
Slick build-up play between Aboulaye Doucoure and Ken Sema created ample room for the wideman to cross into the box. Troy Deeney was then left criminally unmarked on the penalty spot, and Watford’s bullish skipper duly nodded across the sprawling Asmir Begovic for one nil.
The visitors’ talisman proved to be an unwanted thorn in Bournemouth’s side throughout the early exchanges, and once again Deeney was presented with a chance to centre his crosshairs on goal. Dan Gosling’s backwards pass was hoovered up by Gerard Deuloefu, who motored into the penalty area and saw a strike cannon off Steve Cook. The ball fell kindly to Deeney, who steered a strike into the roof of the net. Two nil.
But back came the home side in typical fashion. Comebacks are a speciality at Vitality Stadium, masterminded by the dynamic duo of management team Eddie Howe and Jason Tindall, and Nathan Ake’s close-range header, his second in as many games, finally lifted the home crowd to their feet.
The goal glutton continued. Four minutes later, and Bournemouth were level after clawing back from the brink of utter humiliation. The ever-dangerous Ryan Fraser, who moved level with Eden Hazard at the summit of the Premier League assists chart, whipped in an inviting cross. Callum Wilson, leaping highest into the night sky, glanced a header beyond the reach of Ben Foster.
Rugged manager Sean Dyche, now presiding over Burnley’s mission to evade the clutches of relegation, was quoted last year saying that “defending is a dying art.” Judging by the two backlines on show between Bournemouth and their opponents, Dyche may certainly have a valid point.
Lo and behold: two more minutes, two more goals. Sema snaked his way inside from the right-hand channel and lashed a venomous effort beyond the bewildered Begovic for the visitors’ third, before the home side bounced back level just 60 seconds later. A flowing move sketching its way from left to right culminated in Junior Stanislas drilling the ball across the outskirt of the box, with Fraser applying the finishing touch with an unerring, low drive.
Wilson, Josh King, Fraser and Brooks have all recorded five league goals this season. Only the reigning champions Manchester City, under the stewardship of the wily Pep Guardiola, have more players currently boasting five or more for their tallies.
The obvious difference is that Bournemouth acquired their four star players for less than £20 million in total, a figure that deserves recognition in a top flight world clothed in outlandish amounts of fortune and fame.
This is a testament to the miracles Howe is working at his plucky south-coast side. It would be easy to be disheartened after four consecutive seasons in the top flight, with the haven of European football a distant, likely unreachable dream. But after securing safety for yet another year, the sky really is the limit for a club rapidly endearing themselves in the most competitive division in the world.
It is truly refreshing to see two sides managing to avoid the flickering, uneasy gazes over their own shoulders. Instead, they can continue to stand tall as two bastions of everything good about the Premier League, whilst other sides, perhaps happy to retain their role as the antithesis of the beautiful game, teeter ever close to the drop zone.
When football is played properly, without the usual innate conservatism that dogs many a Premier League side, it has the potential to stitch together fairytale-like dreamscapes. Bournemouth are certainly immersed in one of those.
And so, at Vitality Stadium, football is yet again the real winner.