There was no triumphant return this afternoon to the scene of one of the club’s greatest days and precious little festive cheer on offer as the Hornets’ mid-season dip in form continued.
The scoreboard will say that Pascal Groß scored the only goal of the game after 64 minutes and sometimes it doesn’t tell the whole story but it did here. There wasn’t too much to get excited about and very few clear-cut chances apart from the one Groß drove under the body of Heurelho Gomes just past the hour.
There really was precious little else to report in a game that won’t live long in the memory, unlike the promotion-clinching one here in 2015. The scenes at the final whistle couldn’t have been more contrasting with that balmy May day.
Watford huffed and puffed throughout here but they never really looked like blowing the Brighton house down. There was a real lack of quality in the final third. Richarlison had a couple of second-half efforts, one with his left foot and one with his header, but things just aren’t falling for the Brazilian or the Hornets right now.
The bare facts are that this was a fifth defeat in six and an eight in the last 11. They look, in truth, like a team who are feeling the pinch caused by injuries and suspensions. Indeed, nine of the matchday 18 from the corresponding fixture earlier in the season were missing today. The fact number two keeper Orestis Karnezis had to pull out in the warm-up with a back problem kind of summed up the team’s wretched luck with injury.
Watford started very nervously, very tentatively and like they hadn’t quite got the heavy defeat to Huddersfield out of their system.
They were at sixes and sevens at the back for the first ten minutes as Brighton prompted and prodded, attacking down both sides with vim and vigour. They weren’t carving the Hornets open but they certainly had them hopping around defensively. There was only real one anxious moment though, Gomes using one of his big hands to prevent Tomer Hemed from converting a cross from Anthony Knockaert, who had turned quite brilliantly on a six pence.
Relieved not to be a goal down, Watford grew into the game and it was an encouraging sign when they forced their first corner after 13 minutes. And what a corner it almost was, the returning Tom Cleverley picking out the recalled Roberto Pereyra on the edge of the box in a move clearly rehearsed on the fields of the training ground. It was straight out of the David Beckham and Paul Scholes playbook, only Pereyra didn’t quite catch it as sweetly as he would have liked.
The biggest cheer for the packed away end thereafter came when Richarlison pick-pocketed Knockaert, the pantomime villain from that otherwise memorable Play-Off game at Vicarage Road, twice in quick succession.
The home side were hardly creating chances thick and fast themselves, with the best they managed to muster coming when Connor Goldson found himself free enough at the far post to force a save into the sidenetting from Gomes. Other than that there wasn’t much to write home about, apart from a delicious flick from Pereyra to Daryl Janmaat and a tame effort from Richarlison on the run.
There was a bit of a heart-in-mouth moment right at the end of the half when Christian Kabasele, as last man, tangled with Tomer Hemed but the referee waved play on. There was a collective sigh of relief as a fourth successive red card was not what the doctor ordered.
Both teams seemed to decide to come out swinging in the second half as the game loosened up. Hemed shot over when well placed and then Richarlison forced Mathew Ryan to scramble at his near post and palm away a rising left-footed drive for a corner. It was end-to-end stuff.
You always got the impression the first goal was going to be crucial in a game of fine margins and it was Brighton who got it, Groß receiving a pass from Hemed, cutting in on his right foot and slamming his shot under Gomes.
With the bit between their teeth, Brighton almost made it two, first via a towering header from Lewis Dunk and then through Hemed who shot neatly on the turn.
Head Coach Marco Silva could not be accused of not rolling the dice in search of a winner as he threw on Jerome Sinclair, Étienne Capoue and Stefano Okaka in the space of seven minutes. And the move to put Watford on the front foot nearly worked, with Josè Holebas planting a cross on the head of Richarlison. It was the sort of header the Brazilian would have buried a few weeks ago and easier than the one he scored at West Brom but he planted it wide.
Okaka too, applauded onto the pitch by the travelling fans, also managed to fudge a last-gasp opportunity at the back-post after Mat Ryan had the ball slip through his fingers. That’s just the way it’s going for the Golden Boys right now.
HORNETS | Gomes (GK), Janmaat, Prödl, Kabasele, Holebas, Watson (Capoue 74), Cleverley, Carrillo, Pereyra (Sinclair 71), Richarlison, Gray (Okaka, 78)
Subs not used: Bachmann (GK), Mariappa, Waguè, Folivi.