WATFORD battled their way to a 1-0 victory at home to Birmingham City on Saturday afternoon at Vicarage Road.
Craig Cathcart’s stunning volley into the Rookery net shortly after half-time was enough to seal the three points that sent the ‘Orns to the top of the Championship table.
Hornets Head Coach Slavisa Jokanovic made four alterations to the team that beat Nottingham Forest 3-1 on Wednesday evening.
Juan Carlos Paredes, Tommie Hoban, Miguel Layun and Matej Vydra were all handed starts for the visit of Gary Rowett’s side.
That meant that Marco Motta, Matthew Connolly (hamstring), Ikechi Anya and Odion Ighalo all dropped out of the starting XI.
Heurelho Gomes continued in goal for the ‘Orns, and the two changes in defence meant he had Paredes, Craig Cathcart, Gabriele Angella and Hoban in front of him.
Ahead of them, Jokanovic deployed a diamond in midfield. Ben Watson occupied the holding role, with Adlene Guedioura on the right, Layun on the left and midweek goalscorer Almen Abdi given a role in an advanced position.
Up front, captain Troy Deeney was partnered by Vydra – the same striking partnership that started last weekend’s 2-0 win over Millwall at The Den.
The visitors made one change to the side that drew 2-2 with Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday evening. It came in midfield, with Andrew Shinnie replacing Watford loanee Diego Fabbrini.
The home side had tasted defeat only once in their last 11 matches and the visitors had not won away from home in the league in 2015 – so the onus was very much on the ‘Orns to maintain their promotion push.
A packed Vicarage Road roared the Golden Boys out onto the field, and they responded with an early attack – Vydra combined well with Guedioura before having his shot blocked.
The home side continued to play some neat football in the early exchanges, Vydra and Paredes combined well soon after, before Abdi’s attempted pass into the on-rushing Layun was well cut out by the Blues backline.
The first meaningful excursion into the Watford area came when Birmingham’s lone frontman Clayton Donaldson shimmied to allow Andrew Shinnie a route to goal – one which was well thwarted by Paredes on the cover.
Watford then came agonisingly close to taking the lead, and twice in quick succession.
First, Guedioura played a delightful ball over the top to Deeney, and when his shot was parried Vydra thundered the rebound against the crossbar – much to the disbelief of the majority inside The Vic.
Then, Deeney played in the Czech forward again, but his shot from the left-hand side of the area dragged wide of Randolph’s left-hand post as the Hornets were left frustrated.
The ‘Orns went just as close again to going ahead on the half-hour mark. Vydra turned smartly on the edge of the area, and he found the run of Abdi.
The Swiss playmaker jinked his way passed two challenges from the Birmingham defence and prodded a left-foot effort narrowly wide of the post.
As the half went on the pattern remained the same – the hosts continued to enjoy possession aplenty inside the Birmingham half and around the edge of the area, but they couldn’t muster a breakthrough.
As referee Mark Haywood brought the half to a close, it was the home side that had enjoyed the better chances in an entertaining first period. However, it was imperative that the Hornets were more clinical in the second.
The visitors mustered the first real chance of the half, when Donaldson escaped the attentions of Angella and got in behind the home defence.
The forward bore down on goal, but was met by Gomes who made himself big to parry away the shot.
In a bid to liven up the ‘Orns, Jokanovic introduced Ighalo and Anya from the bench to replace Vydra and Layun – it had the desired effect as Watford got themselves in front.
Deeney found Anya down the left, and the Scot had time to look up and float the ball in. It was met acrobatically by Cathcart in the area, whose wonderful improvised volley sent the ball into the top corner and Vicarage Road into raptures.
The Hornets should have doubled their lead moments later, as they had the visitors on the back foot. Abdi’s floated free-kick from the right was met by the head of Angella in the middle, but the defender couldn’t keep his effort down.
Special mention must go to the captain, Deeney. As he then powered his way back upfield to regain possession, before bombarding through three Birmingham challenges to retain the ball, receiving deafening appreciation from the crowd.
Angella’s header from an Abdi corner was then cleared off the line, before Guedioura’s run into the area was scrambled away – the hosts were in the ascendency.
Substitute Anya was troubling Rowett’s men with his pace, and saw his shot blocked and cleared when he found space again down the left-hand side in behind Paul Caddis.
The Scot then did superbly once more to wrong-foot Caddis and make headway for the area – he was brought down right on the line of the box as the referee gave the home side a free kick that sadly came to nothing.
Jokanovic’s men played out the remainder of the game backed by terrific noise from the Hornets supporters, with the hard-working Deeney at the forefront of the pressure the home side continued to put on their opponents.
It was a vital win for the Golden Boys, sealed by a moment of magic from an unlikely source. With just two games left of this rollercoaster campaign, Watford moved into top spot moments after the final whistle thanks to a late Sheffield Wednesday equaliser against Bournemouth.
Just like last Saturday, it wasn’t the most emphatic of victories, but at this stage of the season where margins are so fine, the three points are all that matter.
HORNETS: Gomes (GK); Paredes, Cathcart, Angella, Hoban; Watson, Guedioura, Layun (Anya 54), Abdi (Tozser 84); Deeney (C), Vydra (Ighalo 54).
Subs not used: Bond (GK), Motta, Munari, Forestieri.
BLUES: Randolph (GK); Caddis (C), Kiernan, Morrison, Grounds; Tesche (Davis 45), Gleeson, Cotterill, Gray (Novak 71), Shinnie (Thomas 57); Donaldson.
Subs not used: Doyle (GK), Robinson, Spector, Arthur.