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Football League

Gianfranco Zola's body language betrays Watford's promotion disappointment


There's something of the country curate about Gianfranco Zola, a transparent decency and thoughtfulness which makes one care for his welfare. In such a harsh, unremittingly challenging environment as professional football, his body language is too eloquent for his own good.

He couldn't disguise the hurt of Watford's failure to clinch automatic promotion. He hovered over his seat, visibly impatient to end the inquest into the 2-1 defeat by Leeds, and return to a dressing room which was a cross between a confessional and a psychotherapist's consulting room.

Zola has a huge job to lift his players, physically and mentally, for the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final at Leicester City on Thursday. Watford defeated them twice during the regular season, but his team were hollow-eyed with disappointment, knowing they were a goal away from the Premier League on a surreal afternoon at Vicarage Road.

"I know how tough this is for all of my players, " Zola said, with trademark earnestness. "Now it is a question of using the right leverages to get the best out of them on Thursday. I can assure you we are not going to approach the play-offs feeling sorry for ourselves, otherwise we will concede too much advantage to our rivals, but we will do everything possible to make sure they are up for it.

"I've never been through the play-offs before, so this is something new for me as well. The players will still be down over the weekend, but on Monday they will be ready to fight. I don't think the games we've played against Leicester earlier this season will be relevant. This is a completely new game, a new challenge, and we will be ready for it."

Brave words, but problems accumulate. Zola must hope first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Almunia recovers from the hamstring injury which forced him out of the Leeds game during the warm-up. Second choice Jonathan Bond has a badly broken nose, and third choice Jack Bonham was traumatised by his unexpected debut, as substitute.

Many in the game are willing Watford to fail, because of the opportunism of the Pozzo family, in adding the homely Hertfordshire club to their burgeoning football empire. The Italian owners addressed the players in the dressing room, and stressed they are ahead of schedule.

Watford's 16 loan players represent an unfair advantage, but at least one of them, Nat Chalobah, will be in the Premier League next season. He is occasionally indolent, but has ease on the ball. Still only 18, he could be the future of Chelsea's midfield.

"Everyone is gutted," he admitted. "It's not a nice feeling to know you came so close and then right at the end to see things go wrong, but that is football. You just have to stay positive. It is deflating, but we have a good bunch here. Not a lot of people get two chances at promotion, two bites at the cherry, but we have that. Now we have to go back and see if we can do it that way."