By Kevin Affleck
Another game at Old Trafford, another defeat and another goal by Marcus Rashford, but here we had further evidence that the Hornets are, slowly but surely, getting ever closer to ending their search for something to hang their hat on in these parts.
Watford have not won here since 1978, three years before the oldest member of the squad, Heurelho Gomes, was even born, and they’ll have to wait now until next season for that to change, but this was another example of how this progressive group is starting to believe it can come to places like this, strut its stuff and push the Red Devils all the way. There is a sense they are starting to feel like they belong at this exalted level of the table, that there is nothing to fear.
United may have won it 2-1, thanks to goals in each half from Rashford and Anthony Martial, but they knew they were in a game. A late goal from Abdoulaye Doucouré was the least the Hornets deserved. You could make a fair case that Watford actually played better here than they did at Cardiff and yet they got diddly squat, which is just the way the cookie crumbles when you don’t take your chances against the bigger more ruthless boys.
Javi Gracia’s bold side were excellent, bossing proceedings at the start of each half and creating chances easily reaching double figures. In mustering 20 shots to United’s eight and enjoying more corners, there was absolutely no sense of them playing second fiddle or taking their foot off the gas with a semi-final on the horizon. It is foot-to-the-floor time, time to show they are indeed the ‘best of the rest’ and that everybody wants a spot in the starting-XI at Wembley. Even when they were two goals down, Gracia threw on Andre Gray and Isaac Success.
The expectation was that the Hornets would turn over and have their tummy tickled as part of the coronation of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, but that was put to bed from the first whistle. It was all Watford in the opening 15 minutes as they produced their best start to a game this season. And that’s not said lightly as there have been plenty to choose from, particular in the first half of the campaign.
With their nimble midfield technicians to the fore, the Hornets played on the front foot, enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and had five shots to United’s one after 25 minutes.
Abdoulaye Doucouré snatched at a chance and screwed it wide of the near post; Troy Deeney cracked one over from distance, David de Gea had to scoop away a Deeney header in the six-yard box while Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu both had shots, albeit half-hearted ones, from the edge of the box.
The best chance of the lot didn’t result in a shooting chance, but it would have done had Deulofeu spotted Deeney, unmarked and 12 yards from goal, on his left. The opportunity inside two minutes had echoes of the game here in 2016 when Odion Ighalo criminally failed to spot Deeney at least twice in a similar position. Deeney conveyed the look of a man who couldn’t believe it had happened again.
The experience at the Emirates earlier this season told you, if you ever needed reminding, that you have to make hay while the sun shines at places as difficult as this. There is a reason, after all, why the Hornets have lost on each of their last 12 visits here.
United, as you feared, weathered the storm, took what the spirited visitors had to throw at them and then pounced devastatingly on the counter-attack. Deeney lost possession up the field, Luke Shaw benefited and then played a wonderful defence-splitting pass that picked out the arcing run of Rashford. He drove into the gap between Adam Masina and Miguel Britos, took one touch and then clipped it low past the on-rushing Ben Foster. It was a cruel blow for the Hornets who had made virtually all the running up until that point.
They were lucky not to, unbelievably, find themselves two down as it took one of Foster’s instinctive legs to keep out Anthony Martial from close range. United now had their tails up and Watford needed to regroup, reorganise and ensure they were still in the game at half-time.
And they very much were, redoubling their efforts at the interval and going again at the start of a second. With Pereyra and Deulofeu causing havoc in the wide areas, Deulofeu had the first attempt of the second period, Deeney was whisker away from getting on the end of a deflected cross from Masina, Daryl Janmaat smashed over one and then De Gea was forced into a sprawling save low to his right to keep out an effort from the excellent Pereyra. It was all Watford.
Even Kiko Femenía, on as a sub, joined in the coconut shy by trying one from distance just minutes after replacing Janmaat. There was also an attempted chip from Deeney who was trying to replicate the one he dinked past Pontus Dahlberg in the week.
They just needed one to go in off anyone or anything, just like Martial managed with 18 minutes to go to kill the game. Doucouré set up a frantic finish by finally finding a way past De Gea on 89 minutes, but it came too late, really. They can take comfort, however, from the fact United had everyone back in stoppage time, all hands to the pump as they held on for a slender win.
Defeat was tough on the Golden Boys but then perhaps the team is saving up all its good fortune for Wembley a week on Sunday. If they play anything like this, they’ll make their own luck.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Janmaat (Femenía 55), Kabasele, Britos, Masina; Hughes (Success 81), Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu (Gray 73), Deeney (c).
Subs not used: Gomes (GK), Cathcart, Quina, Holebas.