FA Cup classic gives ex-Brentford striker a shot at glory against Wembley kid Sterling
Former Brentford striker Andre Gray will pit his wits against Wembley boy Raheem Sterling in this year’s FA Cup final – a match-up few would have anticipated heading into the final 11 minutes of Sunday’s semi-final.
Gray had fluffed a gilt-edged chance to add to his quarter-final winner against Crystal Palace during a memorable cup tie against Wolves just before half-time.
Latching onto a nod down from Troy Deeney, he blasted his effort into the sprawling Conor Coady and it really seemed that a big chance had gone begging.
It was 1-0 at the time, courtesy of a close-range header from Matt Doherty, and after the excellent Raul Jiminez had made it 2-0 to Wolves just past the hour mark, it looked as if the miss would prove highly significant.
In the event, heads did not drop. Gray kept battling away and Watford mounted the unlikeliest of comebacks to win 3-2 in extra-time – the catalyst being super-sub Gerard Deulofeu, whose audacious and technically brilliant chip sparked the revival.
The Spaniard, who did not quite spark at Barcelona and Everton, as his obvious talents suggested he would, then rammed in the 104th minute winner after Deeney had nervelessly powered home an injury-time penalty to send the match into an extra 30 minutes.
Gray it was who supplied the pass paving the way for Deulofeu's winner.
Without doubt, Sunday’s was one of the stand-out cup ties the stadium has staged since its reincarnation in 2007. There have been decent moments and fine matches but few classics to match this one. Few dramatic comebacks like this to stir the blood.
Hornets fans lapped it up. Savouring every delicious moment and basking in the aftermath as the players jigged dances of delight in front of them - the Wolves end already deserted.
“To come on and score when I did in the last round was a great feeling, especially knowing it was close to the end of the game and could be the goal that sends us through to Wembley,” Gray said ahead of the semi-final.
“I’m really excited to see what the atmosphere will be like, and if we can get through to the final, it would be massive. It’s one of the big games in football.”
So now he knows.
Sterling, who famously grew up in the shadows of the famous old stadium, already knows what it’s like, as he plays at Wembley pretty regularly these days, bagging a hat-trick for England in their recent demolition of the Czech Republic.
By his standards, he had a quiet game against Brighton in Saturday’s first semi-final, but then the game as a whole was exactly that. In stark contrast to the vibrancy of Sunday’s very special clash, Man City’s passage to the final felt bloodless and clinical.
The quadruple-chasers only used the gears they needed to use and the swathes of empty seats at their end suggested it was just another routine outing to chalk off in their relentless pursuit of three more trophies to add to their League Cup victory over Chelsea in February.
Pep Guardiola’s team always looked in control. Raheem did not need to be at his exhilarating best.
Javi Gracia’s men had passion and determination rather than control and now he will have to come up with a cunning plan to try and thwart his Catalonian adversary in the final on May 18.
For Watford to land the FA Cup for the first time in their history, everyone knows it will have to be a very good one.