Match Report: Man Utd 3-0 Watford
By Kevin Affleck
The season now boils down to an 11-game campaign, a 990-minute shoot-out after the Hornets lost no real ground but didn't gain any either after this round of matches.
Providing the clash at Anfield between Liverpool and West Ham United on Monday night goes the way of the form book, it's much pretty as you were after Gameweek 27 after only Brighton of the teams in and around the Hornets gained a point on Nigel Pearson's men.
Results on Saturday meant anything at all at Old Trafford this afternoon would have represented a bonus, an unbudgeted point or three. This would really have been the perfect time to end a run of eight fruitless trips to this part of Manchester, a run stretching back to 1985 when talkSPORT host Alan Brazil was a sub for Manchester United and Colin West scored to bag a point for Graham Taylor's Hornets.
It felt like this was as good a time as any to at least claim a draw if not a first ever league win here, particularly with even the most one-eyed of United fans prepared to concede this is not a vintage Red Devils side. Gone are the days when the mighty sight of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo in the home team had damage limitation as the order of the day.
You couldn't accuse Pearson's team of not having a go here, of not believing a first win of any sort at the Theatre of Dreams since 1978 was a distinct possibility. But they didn't quite do enough, not really building on a very promising opening 40 minutes, not capitalising when on top and then not really coming up with any sort of answer after Bruno Fernandes stroked in a 42nd-minute penalty somewhat against the run of play. The Hornets are yet to score after conceding first under Pearson and that will need to change.
United moved gradually through the gears after the confidence-settling first goal, further strikes from Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood in the space of 17 second-half minutes firstly killing the match and then putting the Red Devils completely out of sight. It was a relief, in the end, to get out of here without any further damage to the goal difference while, if you were looking for positives, Ismaïla Sarr played the last 20 minutes and Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck got some minutes under their belt on their old stomping ground.
It could have been so different had the first goal gone the way of the visitors. There was almost the dream start after four minutes. Some overplaying inside the 18-yard box led to Troy Deeney being presented with the ball 12 yards out. You wanted the captain to take one sure-footed touch and let fly with his sledgehammer of a right foot but the ball got caught under his feet and Luke Shaw nipped in to put that particular fire out.
The Hornets were getting a fair bit of joy from their high press, which seemed to revolve around swarming all over Fred when he picked up possession in a deep-lying area, and not long after Abdoulaye Doucouré almost caught De Gea taking one too many touches. Doucouré was again asked to play as the most advanced of the midfield diamond and he burst forward on 14 minutes to rattle one into the sidenetting after a clip from Ben Foster to Craig Dawson had launched a counter-attack orchestrated by Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu.
It was a real assured start from the Hornets. Pereyra curled one past the far post that couldn't make its mind up whether it was a cross or a shot while Doucouré had De Gea flying across his near post after almost screaming one past him with his left foot. The portents were promising, especially with the excellent Will Hughes setting the tone by snapping into tackles on Martial and Nemanja Matic. There was also a typical trackback and recovery tackle from Deeney on Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
It wasn't all Watford but it certainly wasn't all United. It took 11 minutes for the home side to muster a shot on target and then, later on, Daniel James and Fred curled efforts harmlessly over the bar. It looked like the vistiors would get to half-time comfortably until Fernandes went down under a challenge from Ben Foster, leaving Martin Atkinson no other option really than to award a penalty. Fernandes took it in a manner similar to Ronaldo, sending the Watford 'keeper the wrong way with a shuffle of the feet before he struck the ball. It was a harsh blow as the Hornets had done so much, so well for so long. In fact, United had won a penalty before they had even won a corner.
The next goal was always going to be crucial and for a few heady seconds it looked like it had gone Watford's way. Deeney bundled one in four minutes after half-time but VAR correctly judged Dawson had touched the ball with his arm in the buildup and it was chalked off. United never looked back after that reprieve.
Martial clipped in a delicious second on 58 minutes and then Greenwood stroked one high into the net off the underside of the bar. You just wanted the game to finish right there and escape without any further damage ahead of the visit of the champions-elect on Saturday.
It would really have rubbed salt into the wound had Odion Ighalo, on as a late sub, found the back of the net. Instead, the former Hornet hit the sidenetting from a tight angle and it ended up just the three. How the team now need the sort of inspired performance Ighalo put in against Liverpool in December 2015 when the Reds come to town on Saturday. It's time to roll up the sleeves and dig in. So much depends on it.
HORNETS: Foster; Dawson, Kabasele, Cathcart, Masina; Capoue, Hughes, Doucouré (Cleverley 80); Pereyra (Sarr 69), Deeney (C) (Welbeck 76), Deulofeu.
Subs not used: Gomes, Mariappa, Chalobah and Gray.