By Kevin Affleck
He’s magic, you know. No, really he is.
Gerard Deulofeu scored a hat-trick of stunning precision, and then made another for Troy Deeney just to top it off, to inspire Watford to a real statement win in Cardiff, showing why they are gaining a reputation for being a team for all seasons and even all countries. “We’re all going on a European tour,” chorused the 1,800 or so away fans after this win in Wales. And they might well be if Deulofeu plays anything like this for the rest of the season.
This was not a vintage team performance – for an hour, they were sloppy in possession and not as fluent as we’ve seen them – but when you have a player of Deulofeu’s gifts in your side and he turns it on, like he did here, you are always have the chance to put a team to the sword.
He did it at Vicarage Road against the Bluebirds, inspiring his side into a three-goal lead, but this time the Hornets didn’t take their foot off the gas. They were utterly ruthless, particularly in a ten-minute spell just after the hour. They slipped through the gears and Cardiff couldn’t live with them.
It was a night when records tumbled left, right and centre. Deulofeu become the first Watford player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League, it was the club’s biggest Premier League win – and therefore their biggest away from home – and the first time they had scored five goals in a Premier League game. It was just a shame, amid the goal rush, that they didn’t keep Cardiff out as that would have equalled the club record of three consecutive clean sheets in the top flight. It was a night to saviour and one of those to say, ‘I was there.’
It’s no mean feat winning here – just ask Fulham, Brighton, Southampton, Wolves and Bournemouth who came a cropper here – and the ease with which it was achieved was highlighted by the fact that the sound of “ole” from the away end prompted the home fans to head for the exits with a full 15 minutes remaining. It really could have been more, too.
Watford produced the classic away performance in the first half and laid the foundations for the second-half goal feast. They were solid at the back, seized control of the key midfield battle and always looked a threat on the break.
There was always a fear Cardiff could be swept along on an emotional tide following the burial of Emiliano Sala and the death of former player Matthew Brazier, but the Hornets managed to take the sting out of the early exchanges and silence the home crowd.
They forced the first corner, enjoyed two thirds of the possession, slowed the game when required and sped it up when the time came. The visitors produced a couple of nice exchanges in and around the box, usually involving Will Hughes, and one resulted in the goal on 18 minutes. A slick piece of interplay between Hughes and Deeney ended up, somewhat fortuitously, into the path of Deulofeu and he made the most of the lucky break, tucking the ball into the bottom corner. It was Deulofeu at his instinctive best.
Deeney almost found the other corner on 29 minutes only to see Neil Etheridge pull off a fine save low to his left to deny the Watford captain. On reflection, Deeney might think he should have played in Abdoulaye Doucouré, who was in yards of space on the right, but you don’t become the club's fourth highest goal-scorer without a selfish streak in front of goal.
The Hornets managed to keep Cardiff at arms’ length at the other end, with Ben Foster called into action just twice, once to stop Omar Niasse and Joe Ralls in quick succession and then again to deny Joshua Murphy. There was, though, a real sense the Hornets got away with one on 43 minutes when everyone in the ground seemed to notice Daryl Janmaat trip Murphy in the box. Cardiff were incandescent, so much so that Harry Arter was still in the ear of referee Simon Hooper when the players emerged for the second half.
The penalty shout proved a significant moment as the Hornets cut loose in the second half. Deulofeu sprinted clear and rounded Etheridge for the second and then, two minutes later, he had the match ball, chipping Etheridge with the kind of dinked finish you come to expect from a player reared at Barcelona.
Not done there, Deulofeu turned provider for Deeney ten minutes later, teeing up the captain to slot into an empty net. It was extremely unselfish play from the Spaniard and Deeney was hugely grateful, celebrating wildly with his strike partner in front of the disbelieving away fans. You wondered just how many the Hornets would get at that stage as there were still 17 minutes left.
It could have got really messy for Cardiff had Gracia, with future games in mind, not wisely withdrawn Étienne Capoue, Roberto Pereyra and Deulofeu. The Hornets have bigger assignments ahead of them and these three kingpins will be key.
They managed to get one more, through Deeney after a lovely move involving Andre Gray and Hughes, but it is a sign of the standards Gracia sets that he will be annoyed at the consolation Sol Bamba managed to bundle in in-between. But this a night to marvel at what Watford did so superbly at the other end. It was Deulofeu’s night. What a season this is shaping up to be.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Janmaat, Mariappa, Cathcart, Masina; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue (Cleverley 79), Pereyra (Quina 71); Deulofeu (86), Deeney (c).
Subs not used: Gomes, Britos, Sema, Navarro.