By Kevin Affleck
Bournemouth cruelly denied the Hornets at the death this afternoon, preventing the Golden Boys from recording a fourth straight home win with a stoppage-time equaliser from Jermain Defoe.
Watford had seemingly done enough to win the game and looked on course to be celebrating a maximum haul of 12 points out of 12 from four home games under Javi Gracia, leading 2-1 thanks to goals from Kiko Femenía and Roberto Pereyra. But Defoe came off the bench and did what he does best, being ‘Johnny on the spot’ to poach an equaliser from close-range.
It was typical Defoe and heart-breaking for the Hornets. The crowd felt the award of the free-kick in the build-up to the goal was soft, but Watford should really have defended the set-piece better and seen the game out. They'd done all the hard work, they just needed to defend one long free-kick into the box.
It was such a shame and so anti-climactic, as for so long they had appeared on the verge of completing the league double, the first of the season, over the Cherries. Bournemouth are a decent side, one who had lost just two of their last 12 and who had scored in every league game since December 23, but the Hornets never let them settle, were hungry from back to front, pressed the Cherries all over the park and played with plenty of craft in attack.
No-one could really have argued had they won this one, but games against Bournemouth over the last few seasons have always produced drama in some shape or form and we should have known there was going to be a sting in the tail. We just didn't expect the blow to be so crushing.
Once the dust settles and the disappointment subsides, there was still plenty to be encouraged about. There were good, solid performances everywhere – everyone was at least a seven out of 10 – but particularly pleasing was to see both Sebastian Prödl and Daryl Janmaat back to their old selves.
Janmaat was snapping into tackles in the middle of the park at one point and looked exactly the player who had created such problems for Watford in the 2015/16 season when playing as a marauding wing-back for Newcastle. Prödl, meanwhile, produced three fine tackles in the first-half alone and appeared far more assured. He looked more like the player who won the Player of the Season award last year and the one who did so well against Cristiano Ronaldo at the last European Championships.
And then there was Craig Cathcart, on as a second-half substitute, making his first appearance for the Hornets since August. He was back in the defence alongside Adrian Mariappa in a pairing that saw the mind wander back to 2009 when they previously played together in yellow.
Will Hughes sparkled and shone in his first league start since November 28 and he was Watford's creative hub. He got a warm reception from the fans and high fives from both Pereyra and José Holebas when he left the field in a sign of just how well he played. It was a brave move by Gracia to play roaming attacking talents Hughes and Pereyra in the same side, but this is a Head Coach who isn't afraid to chance his arm and his bold approach paid off, with Hughes and Pereyra combining for the second goal.
It was Bournemouth, though, who started the busier and brighter of the two sides and Nathan Aké really should have scored from a Junior Stanislas free-kick after just three minutes. Totally free six yards out, it seemed easier to score than hit the bar but that's exactly what the former Watford loan star did. It was a big let-off.
Then, three minutes later, Orestis Karnezis dived low to his left to prevent Stanislas finding the bottom corner. It was clear the Cherries had come to play and set their stall out to start fast. The Hornets were struggling to keep up.
But they weathered the early storm and scored with their first serious attempt on goal. Holebas picked out Femenía at the far post from a corner and the Spaniard let fly first time. His effort was on target but it took a crucial deflection off Joshua King and gave Asmir Begović no chance. Watford left it late in their last two home games but now they had the early goal to settle everybody down and give them a platform to build on.
But still Bournemouth came, still they continued to push in search of a route back into the match with their fleet-footed attacking play. Aké headed over again from a similar position and then Prödl made a great recovery tackle after King got clear.
Watford had their moments, particularly down the right where Janmaat and Femenía dovetailed neatly, but it was Femenía, coming off his wing, that created their next best chance. He made a diagonal run from right to left and was picked out by a searching ball from deep by Étienne Capoue. He got into the box and got the ball back for Hughes. You fancied Hughes, with that sweet left foot of his, to find the bottom corner from 10 yards out, but his shot took a deflection off Deeney and the ball rolled agonisingly wide. It felt like a big chance had gone begging.
Prödl was then at his sharpest and most decisive shortly after when he made another superbly-timed tackle to deny Jordon Ibe and stop a very promising opportunity in his tracks. The tackle got a huge round of applause from an appreciative crowd and rightly so. It was easily Prödl's best 45 minutes of the season.
Thanks to the towering Austrian defender, it looked like Watford were going to get to the break with their noses in front, but then Holebas handled a dropping ball after Karnezis has superbly saved from Stanislas. It meant another penalty in the fixture between these two sides and King made no mistake from 12 yards, sending Karnezis the wrong way.
But all that was forgotten just four minutes after the restart when Pereyra scored to put the Hornets back in front. The Argentine will get all the glory for the strike, which he caressed into the bottom corner, albeit via another deflection, but Hughes deserves so much credit the neat footwork to set up him while Deeney did all the donkey work in pestering and harrying the life out of Ryan Fraser.
Chances were few and far between thereafter as both teams jabbed and jostled without landing a knockout blow, although you couldn't accuse either Gracia or Eddie Howe of not having a go. Gracia threw on Stefano Okaka and Richarlison when others might have shut up shop, while Defoe was thrust into the action as the Cherries pushed for an equaliser.
Ironically, it was Okaka who conceded the foul that led to Defoe scoring the match-leveller. It was Watford's subs who came off the bench to such devastating effect in the last two home games, but now it was Bournemouth's turn. That's just the way it goes sometimes.
HORNETS | Karnezis (GK); Janmaat, Prödl (Cathcart 63), Mariappa, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue; Femenía (Richarlison 80), Hughes (Okaka 75), Pereyra; Deeney (C).
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Ndong, Gray, Lukebakio.