By Kevin Affleck
Well that was hairier than anyone would have liked.
The Hornets looked to be cruising to a long-awaited victory on the back of three goals that came out of the very top drawer, when Cardiff staged an unforeseen comeback and threatened to poop the Hornets' Christmas party and spoil Tom Cleverley's return to first-team action.
But the Golden Boys held on, just about amid the odd scare, and no-one will remember once the hectic festive season is over that they made hard work of these three points. They really could have won it 6-2 on another day. Premier League wins come in all shapes and sizes – and this was certainly an unconventional one – but they all are worth the same and are all hard earned. Watford just seem to make harder work of winning points this season than most.
It would have been a travesty had they not won this one as they made all the running for 80 minutes. Gerard Deulofeu has game-changing qualities and he demonstrated them here, scoring a brilliant solo effort for the first and then teeing up José Holebas for a cracking second. This is why the Hornets were so thrilled to have convinced Deulofeu to join the club on a permanent basis from Barcelona because he can turn a game like this on its head with a touch of his right foot.
The only surprise was that he didn't have a hand in the third, scored brilliantly by Domingos Quina, but that's the thing about this team now: they have several match-winners in their ranks. Quina's goal, curled wonderfully into the far corner, was a fitting reward for his bright performance in midfield and was further confirmation that the club have a serious player on their hands in the Portuguese youth international.
The quality of the goals will dominate the post-match chat, but what was so pleasing here was the patience Watford showed to win this one. Cardiff only lost by a single goal at Tottenham and Everton and they rallied late here, so they are a tough nut to crack yet the Hornets kept their shape throughout, kept prompting, kept probing and retained the belief that their superior quality would eventually shine through.
Yes, they carelessly switched off at the end, and allowed Cardiff to score twice in three minutes to make the last seven minutes more nervy than it ought to have been, but let's make no bones about it – the Hornets were worthy winners of this one and a three-goal margin of victory wouldn't have flattered them.
The biggest problem in the first half was what to do with all the possession they had. They monopolised the ball and had 81 per cent it of after 12 minutes. It was like a training session at times, with attack pitched against a defence who were under strict orders not to cross the halfway line.
Neil Warnock turned up with an ultra-cautious 5-4-1 formation and sought to minimise the spaces between the lines. It got Javi Gracia thinking early on and forced him to make a tactical tweak, moving Ken Sema to the left, Deulofeu to the right and allowing Roberto Pereyra to play just off Troy Deeney.
The Head Coach had only just made the reshuffle when Deulofeu came in off the right, collected a pass from Abdoulaye Doucouré, ignored the defence-shifting overlapping run from Pereyra, cut inside Sean Morrison and Bruno Ecuele Manga and steered the ball into the bottom corner after 16 minutes.
Clear-cut chances were hard to come by thereafter as Cardiff showed no signs of loosening the hand break after falling behind. Pereyra was involved in any opportunities that were fashioned. Deeney almost played him in following a neat bit of interplay; Neil Etheridge raced off his line to smother a shot after Deulofeu and Doucouré had combined to put him in down the left and then the Cardiff keeper prevented him from sticking a free-kick in the back of the net with a flying save right at the end of the half.
Watford had made all the running in the first period – the closest Cardiff came to troubling Ben Foster was a looped header from Callum Paterson that dropped harmlessly wide – and the only disappointment was they were only one goal to the good at the break. But half-time leads in the Premier League are not to be sniffed at.
Pereyra and Etheridge continued their personal duel at the start of the second half, with the Filipino No.1 reading Pereyra's intention to cajole one into his favoured far corner and sticking out a big left hand. Pereyra threw his hands up in frustration, wondering if he was ever going to find a way past the inspired Etheridge.
Holebas did on 52 minutes, side-footing the ball high into the net with extraordinary precision. It was his third of the season and easily his best, just like the one he got at Middlesbrough a couple of seasons back. It gave the Hornets the comfort blanket of a second goal and the confidence to pull out the party tricks.
Quina has more in his locker than most and he showed he has the full package any midfielder could want by curling in a sumptuous third on 68 minutes. It looked to be game, set and match, and a question of how many the Hornets might get at that stage, but Cardiff threatened to throw a spanner in the works.
Junior Hoilett added another contender for the extraordinary goal-of-the-match competition by curling in what initially looked like a consolation in 80 minutes, but all of a sudden it was game on when Bobby Reid scrambled in a second three minutes later.
The crowd got nervy, the players were edgy and Foster was called into emergency action on a couple of occasions, but the Hornets held on, just about, and the six-match winless run was over. There is never a dull moment following the fortunes of this team this season.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Sema (Success 77), Doucouré, Quina, Pereyra; Deulofeu (Cleverley 87), Deeney (Okaka 81).
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Mariappa, Chalobah, Masina.