If Watford are to finish seventh, and right now it looks unlikely, they are going to have to do it the hard way after Wolverhampton Wanderers won the shoot-out between the two sides just outside the top six.
The Hornets now need snookers to finish as the best of the rest after Wolves put themselves four points clear of the Golden Boys with this crucial, crucial victory. Anything can happen in the final two games, and you wouldn’t put anything past this trailblazing group, but the Golden Boys now need to beat Chelsea and West Ham and hope for others to do them a favour. It looks a tall order.
This was a big missed opportunity as Javi Gracia’s side could have gone two points clear of Wolves with a win here, their fate would have been in their own hands. Even a draw would have left everything to play for in the next fortnight. You felt a point was the least they would get after Andre Gray left things all square with a 49th-minute equaliser. It looked like we were in for another grandstand finish, another late, late show but the Hornets had used up all their get out of jail free cards and this time it was Wolves who struck late on, partly, but only partly, making amends for their collapse at Wembley.
Nuno Espirito Santo made a mistake in bringing off Diogo Jota in that epic semi-final as the game was turned on its head after he headed down the Wembley tunnel, but the Portuguese coach didn’t make the same mistake here, leaving the former Atletico Madrid winger on for the distance and watching him create the first for Raúl Jimenez and then score the winner on 77 minutes. He was eventually taken off in stoppage but by then, the game was won, he had done his job. He’s a fine player.
The first 20 minutes were about as far removed from the drama of Wembley as you could get. The fact a tame long-range effort from Ruben Neves drew “oohs” from the away end demonstrated the paucity of action up to that point. It was all anybody had to get excited about.
The way Gerard Deulofeu slipped over from a nice threaded pass from Roberto Pereyra kind of summed up how things went for the Hornets in the vast majority of the first half. They just couldn’t get their game going and when they did, when Kiko Femenía got in behind down the right, there was no-one to head in his inviting cross.
Étienne Capoue was once again head and shoulders above anyone playing in a yellow shirt, running the game for long periods, and he showed he has remarkable powers of recovery to go alongside the rest of his heavenly talents when he somehow prevented Jiménez from opening the scoring just past the half-hour. The Mexican seemed certain to tuck in a cross from Leander Dendoncker but, from nowhere, Capoue got back and extended one of his telescopic legs to hook the ball of the line. It was an extraordinary piece of defending.
The Hornets seemed determined to make the most of their reprieve. Ryan Bennett had to get back and whip one off the toes of Deulofeu and then Will Hughes instinctively headed one over after Adrian Mariappa had nodded back a nicely-worked corner involving José Holebas and Roberto Pereyra. Gracia had his head in his hands after that one as it was clearly something he had been working on in training all week.
It proved a key miss as two minutes later, Wolves had their noses in front. The lively Jota, who gave Femenía real going over in the first half, crossed from the left and there was Jimenez to head home. He wasn’t going to miss that one.
It felt like the Hornets were going to need a break to get back into it and they got one four minutes after half-time. Bennett played a back pass without even looking and that played in Deulofeu. The Spaniard tried to go round Patrício, couldn’t quite manage it, but there was Gray on hand to squirm home a key, key goal. It was his fifth goal in his last seven home games. Now we had a game on our hands.
Switching to a diamond, the Hornets played on the front foot for the rest of it. Pereyra drilled one just wide of the near post, Conor Coady bravely blocked a piledriver from Hughes and then Deulofeu came within a whisker of threading in Gray. It was all Watford for a bit. There was one brief scare at the other end when an usually sloppy piece of play from Abdoulaye Doucouré and Capoue from a free-kick let in Jiménez, but thankfully the lone striker had strayed offside.
The game was there to be won and Gracia thought he would go about winning it by bringing on for Christian Kabasele for Hughes and switching to three at the back. The move barely had three minutes to work when Jota decisively put Wolves back in front. Foster mis-judged a deep cross from Neves and there was Jota at the far post to plant home with his left foot. The Wolves players celebrated wildly in front of their fans. They knew what a big goal that was.
Isaac Success came on at the end in a bid to add a bit of muscle but all he really did was get booked, along with Holebas and Capoue, in a slightly fractious end, and Wolves held on for a win they probably just about deserved. You could tell by the reaction of the players at the end how disappointing this result was. Yes, we’re going to Wembley, but this defeat will hurt for a few days.
HORNETS: Foster (GK); Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart (Success 82), Holebas; Hughes (Kabasele 74) , Capoue, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Gray.
Subs not used: Gomes (GK), Janmaat, Masina, Sema and Chalobah.