By Kevin Affleck
There was no great surprise Watford went down to Manchester City this evening, but there are ways of losing games and the Hornets lost the right way.
The Hornets had a right good stab at becoming only the third Premier League side to take something off Manchester City this season. When all looked lost and City looked to be cruising to victory, the Golden Boys conjured up a grandstand finish with six minutes to go when Abdoulaye Doucouré pulled it back to 2-1. They made Man City sweat that bit more than they were probably expecting to. They even forced Pep Guardiola, the coolest of customers, to panic and chuck on Aymeric Laporte for Gabriel Jesus late on.
But in the end it was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Riyad Mahrez, who has form here for winning games, proved to be the slipperiest customer of the lot, creating one and setting up the other. He proved the difference between the two sides. City were grateful for him in the end as this ended up being a lot closer than Guardiola would have liked.
City were not as good as they were twice here in 2017 when they racked up 11 goals without reply, but then again Raheem Sterling was left on the bench and Sergio Agüero was left out altogether. By the same token, Watford were better, more organised and disciplined than they have been in the last two instalments of this fixture at Vicarage Road. They were not in the mood to be humiliated on their own patch. They are made of sterner stuff than that these days. City were just better and there is no shame in admitting that.
Games at this level so often hinge on terrifying small margins and there will be a fanciful few who will be entitled to wonder how different things might have been had Troy Deeney converted an opportunity with the game locked at 0-0. It was not an easy chance, but it's the sort you need to go in if you've got any chance of getting something out of a game against a City side playing like this. When Ederson stuck out one of his long legs to hack Deeney's shot away, Watford's hopes went with it. It felt like a big moment, like Watford's big chance to upset the applecart.
It went begging and City never looked back thereafter, not until the last few minutes. Mahrez, who scored the winner for Leicester here the year they won the league, laid the first on a plate for Leroy Sané nine minutes after Deeney's big chance and then helped himself to one just after half-time. And that was that. City knocked the stuffing out of the home side in an 11-minute spell either side of the break.
It wouldn't have taken a rocket scientist to work out how the match began. City monopolised possession – they had as much as 72 per cent at one stage – and they moved the ball slickly from side to side, prodding and probing in a bid to unlock the door.
City can carve you open at will and certainly don't need a helping hand, so they probably couldn't believe their luck when Roberto Pereyra almost gifted them the opener on a plate. The Argentine played a careless pass across the middle of the field and Sané gobbled it up. He took one touch, scorched between two defenders and put himself one-on-one with Ben Foster. The German tried to be cute and chip the onrushing keeper, but Foster was alert and pulled off a fine save with his top hand.
Not content with that, Foster pulled off not one, not two but three saves from the same phase of play eight minutes later. Fernandinho got City in behind with a lovely slide-rule pass, but there was Foster to deny Mahrez, then Bernardo Silva and then David Silva. Foster has had some good moments already this season, but denying those high-class playmakers was arguably the best.
The summer signing from West Bromwich Albion was at it again on the half-hour mark, covering his near-post well to deny Gabriel Jesus after the Brazilian had got round the back of Christian Kabasele. It was turning into Foster against City.
Ederson then showed, when called upon, he had a bit in his locker, too. A deep cross from Isaac Success found its way to Deeney via Pereyra and Doucouré. The captain swivelled and shot first time, managing to get it on target, but Ederson stuck his leg out and kicked it to safety.
City were not going to take that lying down and, if anything, they cranked up the intensity that little bit more. They wanted to ensure Watford were not in with a sniff for any longer than necessary so they got Mahrez even more of the ball than he was already seeing. The Algerian saw one cross just about scrambled clear so he had another go when the ball was recycled to him straight away and he was even more precise with his delivery this time, picking out the run of Sané at the far post and he stole between Kiko Femenía and Foster to scramble the ball in. It wasn't the prettiest goal City will score this season, but they all count.
Mahrez went from architect to executioner five minutes after half-time. Success turned over possession in the corner and City pounced. The ball was fed to Jesus, he picked out Mahrez at the far post and the former Leicester man did the rest, slamming the ball past Foster.
It was damage limitation thereafter but Gracia, to his credit, never sent on defensive reinforcements to shore things up. Instead he threw on attacking players Domingos Quina, Gerard Deulofeu and Andre Gray, figuring that if Watford were going to go down, they were going to go down fighting.
The Hornets indeed had something of a go. Success smashed one over and Doucouré tried to caress one into the far corner, but City always had that bit in reserve and were capable of slipping through the gears to put the game completely out of reach.
Jesus tried to dink the third over Foster only to see his effort drop wide and then Mahrez tried to bend one in the far corner. It looked like if there was going to be another goal, it was going to go City's way but the Hornets had other ideas and conjured up a heart-stopping finish out of nowhere.
Deulofeu's cross was bundled in at the far post by Doucouré and suddenly it was game on. The Hornets forced a couple of corners and a couple of anxious moments in the City backline, the crowd all of a sudden sensing an unlikely draw. But the Hornets had left their late charge too late and City held on like all champion sides tend to do.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes (Quina 55), Doucouré, Chalobah (Deulofeu 63), Pereyra; Deeney (c), Success (Gray 75).
Subs not used | Gomes, Masina, Wilmot, Mariappa.