The Golden Boys were left to wonder what might have been after their thrilling unbeaten away record came to an end at the home of the champions this afternoon.
The Hornets recovered superbly from conceding a controversial first goal to first level through Abdoulaye Doucourè and then get their noses in front through Roberto Pereyra either side of half-time. A first win at Stamford Bridge since 1986 was very much on the cards and could easily have been achieved had golden chances for Richarlison, twice, and Christian Kabasele, at least once, been converted.
But you can’t afford to miss chances as gilt-edged as those at any level, let alone this exalted one, and expect to get away with it. And Watford didn’t. There was always the sense Chelsea had another gear to reach and they found it to score three times in the last 19 minutes, including twice through Michy Batshuayi, to dash Watford’s hopes.
The fourth, in injury time, was just cruel and gave the scoreline a lop-sided reflection. There is no disgrace losing to the champions, especially in their backyard, but it says a lot about the ambition of the Hornets right now that this felt like one that got away.
Watford started well, popping the ball about with precision and pace, believing they stood a chance of earning something tangible at the home of the champions. One delicious flick round the corner from Pereyra, to deceive David Luiz, summed up the confidence they were playing with. They were very much going toe to toe with Antonio Conte’s men.
But all that was undone on 11 minutes following the incorrect awarding of a corner to the home side. The ball clearly deflected off Eden Hazard and not Miguel Britos yet the hesitant assistant referee, with the home fans on his back, pointed to a corner.
Chelsea took it so quickly that Watford were not able to pull everyone back, as they like to do, and Hazard played it short to Pedro who whipped it in off the fat post. It was some goal. Heurelho Gomes was left rooted to the spot.
Fired by a sense of injustice, Josè Holebas was booked soon after as was Adrian Mariappa, and it took a while for the Hornets to regain their composure. They were lucky they didn’t find themselves two down, Gomes standing his ground and not falling for the disguise when Fabregas tried to chip him.
Slowly but surely, Watford managed to get a foothold back in the game and kept prompting, kept probing largely through the lively Richarlison who must have been fouled at least half a dozen times. As always, he got up and kept coming back for more.
It was from a free-kick won by the Brazlian that Tom Cleverley had Thibault Courtois scrambling across his goal to keep out a strike that was heading on target and into the back of the net.
Yet soon after, and not long after Gomes had clawed one away from Fabregas, the back of the net was bulging. A long throw-win from Holebas dropped into the path of Doucourè and the midfielder lashed the loose ball into the back of the net. Doucourè ran zealously the length of the pitch to celebrate with the jubilant away fans.
The Hornets went into the break with the momentum but they so nearly lost it straight after had it now been for a goal-saving block from Adrian Mariappa to stop a Azpilicueta cross reaching the waiting Alvaro Morata at the far post. The value of it was only fully appreciated minutes later when Pereyra thrillingly put Watford in front.
Troy Deeney and Richarlison, who else, combined to find Pereyra inside the box and he took one touch before unerringly beating Courtois right in front of the away fans. Richarlison would have been the most relieved man inside Stamford Bridge as just minutes earlier he had somehow managed to steer a gift-wrapped centre from Kiko Feminià wide of the far post when it seemed easier to score.
Richarlison was, incredibly for a man in such vein of form as him, off target again with a chance that could have killed the game. A inswinging cross from the right by Miguel Britos, of all people, was inch perfect for a player so deadly in the air but the Brazilian planted it wide of the far post. He couldn’t believe he missed.
The miss proved costly as on 71 minutes Pedro crossed for Batshuayi to nip in front of Britos and glance a header impressively into the far corner.
Chelsea now had their tails up and were sensing blood yet Watford should have drawn level when Kabasele found himself unmarked at the far post from a Cleverley. He just had to direct it into the far corner but failed to get enough purchase on the ball. It was to be Watford’s last big chance.
Chelsea were to have two more and they buried them both to give the scoreline a slightly flattering reflection. Azpilicueta headed in the third from a Willian cross and then Batshuayi added an unjust fourth. Game over.
HORNETS: Gomes; Mariappa (Gray 88), Kabasele, Britos; Femenía, Cleverley, Doucouré, Holebas; Pereyra (Carrillo 65), Deeney (C) (Watson 80), Richarlison.
Subs not used: Karnezis (GK), Wagué, Janmaat, Capoue.