Down 2-0. Twelve minutes left. The opposition support roars in ecstasy, knowing their side is set to go to the FA Cup Final. The only way Wolverhampton Wanderers can lose is to be on the receiving end of one of the most improbable comebacks in recent memory. With Watford’s cup dreams destined for doom, substitute Gerard Deulofeu conjured an audacious chip, scoring one of the best goals the new Wembley has ever seen. His goal in extra time sent the Hornets to their second major cup final in club history.
Deulofeu’s Time With Watford
Watford fans know Deulofeu for more than just his FA Cup Semi-Final heroics. Arriving at Vicarage Road at the start of 2018 from Barcelona (initially on loan, then made permanent), the Spaniard became a favorite to many. Although his attitude is condemnable on occasion, his contributions to the Club outweigh the sparse moments of negativity.
The Hornets’ former number seven (new signing Philip Zinckernagel now claims the number) has seen his time with Watford hampered by injuries. He missed seven matches at the end of the 2017/18 campaign and seven more at the start of the 2018/19 season. His most unfortunate, untimely injury occurred in Watford’s famous 3-0 victory over then-invincible Liverpool. His cruciate ligament injury sidelined him for the last 10 matches of the 2019/20 season. His unavailability destined the Hornets for relegation, as no one was able to fill his shoes in his absence.
Despite being a left-winger by trade, Deulofeu found success in both the wide-position and centrally. In his most prolific season with the Hornets, Deulofeu found the back of the net 12 times and assisted five times. His form was pivotal in helping Javi Gracia steer the Golden Boys to their second-best finish ever in the English Football pyramid. The bulk of the now 26-year-old’s goals came from the central-forward position.
The former Everton and AC Milan player has appeared 70 times for Watford in all competitions, scoring 17 goals and assisting 11. Despite how well Deulofeu settled in at Vicarage Road, the truth is a player of his caliber does not belong in any nation’s second tier. So, the Hornets sent him on loan to, unsurprisingly, Udinese.
After spending the summer recovering from his injury, Deulofeu made his Udinese debut against Parma on October 18th. He appeared in the Pozzo-owned club’s next four matches, including starts against his former club AC Milan and scoring against LR Vicenza in the Coppa Italia.
A full 120 minutes played in a defeat to Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia proved Deulofeu had moved past his ligament injury. Deulofeu created a goal in a start against Torino soon after. But, after minutes started to pick up for him, he fractured his foot in a defeat to Benevento. After missing three matches, he returned to the bench in Udinese’s recent fixture against Sampdoria.
The four-time capped Spanish international player, despite featuring in eight Serie A matches, averages 35 minutes on the pitch per league match. This is primarily due to Udinese’s manager being cautious of his recent injury history. However, even when appearing fully fit, Deulofeu does not seem to be Luca Gotti’s first-choice. To Gotti, Deulofeu is both a wide player and a central-forward when need be, meaning he does not have a solidified position in the starting eleven (as of yet).
What Deulofeu Said Post-Relegation
Following the Hornets’ relegation and his subsequent loan-move to Udinese, Deulofeu took to Twitter to say, “Hi Watford fans. I just wanted to thank you for the support you have given me in my time at the club so far. I wish you all the best for the season and am sure the squad will give everything to return to the Premier League straight away. All the best for now.”
Reading into so-called “cryptic tweets” is usually not a wise idea. However, the “for now” Deulofeu included gave fans hope that the Spaniard’s time in the Gold and Black might not be over after all.
What Needs To Happen
Following Zinckernagel’s usurping of the number seven kit, the return of Deulofeu grew more unlikely. However, this is not to say there is zero chance he returns. It is not likely, but there is still reason to hope for Watford fans.
First and foremost, the Hornets need to secure promotion to stand a realistic chance of retaining Deulofeu. He is a top-flight player who needs top-flight football. The prerequisite of the Club’s return to the Premier League in order to see him at Vicarage Road is evident. A scenario where he returns to the Hornets to play in the Championship is unrealistic, and it would be a shock (albeit joy) to all.
Even though Zinckernagel has the number seven kit, the two 26-year-old’s prefer to line-up on opposite wings. With rumors regarding a potential Ismaïla Sarr move swirling as always, the odds of seeing Sarr with the Hornets for the 2021/22 campaign, regardless of promotion, are shrinking. Zinckernagel, who currently is seen as a two-sided winger due to a managerial reluctance to drop right-winger Sarr, is the long-term replacement for Watford’s record-signing.
If Sarr departs, thus bumping Zinckernagel permanently to his preferred right-wing, then Deulofeu’s only competition would be Ken Sema (who can thrive in many other positions). Deulofeu, who is not currently seeing starters’ minutes with Udinese (even when fully recovered from injuries), would once more be a first-choice for Watford. Many teams will still be concerned about purchasing Deulofeu permanently due to his recent injury record. Vicarage Road might be viewed as the best destination to reclaim fitness reliability ahead of a permanent move away further down the line.
Considering Deulofeu’s ties to Hertfordshire, the conjunction of promotion and the return of fans to stadiums would be hard for him to turn a cold shoulder on. Yes, any potential return is surely contingent on promotion. Going up, as of now, has a decent chance of occurring, but is not necessarily “probable” either. Still, the realistic target and aspirations of promotion mean all hope is not lost.
It is hard to find fans who would oppose Deulofeu’s return. Deulofeu’s coming back is not likely, as supporters have long-accepted. However, there are still keys that can be turned to bring Deulofeu back to the Club. There may be many pieces to the puzzle and those parts may be hard to acquire. Nonetheless, the glimmer of hope is worth holding on to. The pieces needed for his return exist and are in reach.