By Kevin Affleck
Roberto Pereyra's pursuit of the club's Goal of the Season award shows no sign of relenting after he posted another jaw-dropping contender in the Boxing Day clash with Chelsea at Vicarage Road.
The Argentine had already scored crackers against Brighton, Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton Wanderers that would win the gong hands down in any other season, but he complicated the vote even further by volleying in a corner from José Holebas in first-half stoppage time. It was reminiscent of the way Paul Scholes used to convert corners from David Beckham.
It was a goal that was fit to win any game but, sadly, it didn't as Chelsea's own playmaker, Eden Hazard, scored two goals with surgical precision either side of Pereyra's to win it for the Blues.
The Hornets can feel slightly hard done by at losing the game as they played a full part in proceedings and gave as good as they got. They probably didn't do enough to win the game, but a draw would have been a fair result and a reward for their wholehearted efforts. They were good but not quite good enough.
The first half lacked intensity and took a while to get going from the Hornets' perspective. They seemed content to sit in, soak up a bit of pressure and make sure they were still in the game at half-time. It was the cricket equivalent of keeping wickets in hand.
It took until 26 minutes for them to make their first thrust into the Chelsea box, Abdoulaye Doucouré exchanging passes with Gerard Deulofeu, cutting inside Antonio Rüdiger only to see Jorginho slide across and brilliantly block his shot just as it left his boot.
That seemed to give the Hornets the encouragement they needed and soon after, Doucouré had another crack with his left foot after a speedy break down the left by Troy Deeney and Roberto Pereyra. Then, Deulofeu launched a counter-attack down the middle after some high pressing, giving Deeney the chance to have a crack at goal. His shot was blocked by David Luiz, but the Hornets had served notice of their intent.
Chelsea were always a threat with their nimble array of attackers and they probably should have been in front before they eventually were. Willian steered an effort past the post, pushed another into the side-netting after a stunning length-of-the-field move and then Hazard, unmarked and six yards out, tried to be too cute when César Azpiliceuta flashed one across the face of goal.
But you don't give players as good as Hazard a second bite of the cherry and he made no mistake in the first minute of stoppage time. A rare mix-up in midfield between Étienne Capoue and Doucouré gifted Mateo Kovačić possession deep in Hornets' territory. He played in Hazard with an early pass and the Belgian advanced, went round Ben Foster and slotted into an empty net. It was a brilliantly-taken goal, one commensurate with his prodigious ability.
It looked for all money like the Hornets were going to go into the break with their chins down, but they responded brilliantly with another beauty from Pereyra. A cleverly-worked corner saw several dummy runners leave space for Pereyra at the end of the box and he ran onto a Holebas corner with immaculate timing and volleyed it low into the bottom corner. The reaction of Javi Gracia in the dugout suggested this had been something they had worked tirelessly on the training ground. It was just what the doctored before the break and meant the Hornets went in with the momentum. There were high fives all round.
It was the moment Gracia decided to seize the day, play with a higher line and take the game to Chelsea. You had Deeney knocking over Willian in the corner in a manner similar to the way he toppled Davison Sanchez here against Tottenham. Ken Sema produced a trick to get past Marcos Alonso and then Deulofeu was pleading for a penalty after he felt he was shoved over by Luiz.
It was easily the Hornets' best spell of the match and the force was really with them so it came as a body blow when Chelsea scored, from a penalty, with their first attack of their half just before the hour mark. Foster made a rare mistake in coming out when he probably didn't really need to and after Hazard had knocked the ball round him, the Belgian was always going to go down when contact was made. He made the penalty look ridiculously easy, sending Foster to the right and rolling the ball into the left-hand corner.
The spot-kick knocked the stuffing out of the Hornets and, as hard as they tried, they never really played with the same tempo again. Gracia rolled the dice from the bench by bringing on Domingos Quina and then Isaac Success, but Chelsea always had that bit extra in reserve and they almost got a third when Willian fired wide of one post and then N'Golo Kanté flashed one past the other. Both chances were orchestrated by the irrepressible Hazard, who was denied a hat-trick at the end by the foot of Foster.
The closest the Hornets came to levelling was when Deeney stabbed over the bar from a Doucouré centre from the left, but other than that, there was to be no late show like there was here last season. Hazard wasn't going to be denied this time, he made doubly sure of that.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele (Mariappa 16), Holebas; Sema (Quina 68) , Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu (Success 82), Deeney (C).
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Cleverley, Masina, Okaka.