Match Report: West Ham United 0-2 Watford
By Kevin Affleck
That Christmas turkey will taste that bit sweeter for fans of the Hornets after they produced everything you would want in an away performance to beat West Ham United.
In bursting the Hammers' bubble thanks to a nerveless first-half penalty from Troy Deeney and a quality late strike from Gerard Deulofeu, the Hornets showed they are genuine contenders to land that sixth spot, which is very much up for grabs, and that they are a force to be reckoned with at home and away. This is a team for all seasons.
It wasn't pretty at times and the team had to dig deep between both goals, but the Hornets were great value for this win in what was a classic away performance. They defended like lions – Christian Kabasele in the first half and José Holebas in the second were both heroic – they worked their socks off and then plundered two goals with ruthless efficiency. They looked anything but a side who had won just twice away from home in 20 games and one who had conceded two goals in each of their last five matches.
There was so much to admire about this performance, not least the defensive resilience, but what stood out was the interplay for the two goals. Roberto Pereyra and Deulofeu are players of the highest class and West Ham simply could not live with their movement and weight off pass. Deulofeu played in Pereyra for the one that led to the penalty and then Pereyra returned the favour for the match-clinching second. These two gems are firmly on the same wavelength and, as they showed against Chelsea, Huddersfield and now West Ham, are capable of winning a game in a flash. You've always got a chance with those two in your ranks.
This was also a real triumph for Javi Gracia who got his tactics and team selection spot on. He’d been praying that things for his luckless Watford would start to go his side's way, believing that the rotten luck would start even itself out and they finally got one of the big decisions go their way. Yes, it was blatant penalty but then so was the foul on Will Hughes against Liverpool and that one didn't go the team's way. Lee Mason awarded one against the Hornets in the Carabao Cup, but he had no option than to point to the spot here after Fabián Balbuena clumsily felled Pereyra after 30 minutes. It fell squarely into the stonewall category. Deeney made no mistake and now has 115 goals for the club, three behind Ross Jenkins in the Hornets’ all-time scorers’ chart.
The opening exchanges were not particularly pleasing on the eye as both sides struggled to gain any rhythm. Perhaps the rare sight of two teams playing a conventional 4-4-2 cancelled each other out.
Sights of goal were very rare indeed. Christian Kabasele had to produce a vital sliding interception to Michail Antonio's cross reaching a ready and waiting Chicharito. But, by the same token, Balbuena had to be just as alert to stop Deulofeu nipping in after he had threaded in down the inside right.
It took until the 20th minute for the crowd to really contemplate getting out of their seat, Antonio's long-range blockbuster forcing a flying save from Ben Foster that probably made the shot look more threatening than it actually was.
Holebas has been involved in more goals this season than any defender in the league, so it was a surprise to see his touch let him down at the mid-point of the half. He timed his run to perfection to get round the back and take an angled cross from Kiko Femenía in his stride, but he failed to cushion the pass just when it looked like he was in.
And then came the goal. Deulofeu and Pereyra exchanged sublime passes on the edge of the box and, all of a sudden, Pereyra was in. The Argentine saw the challenge from Balbuena coming, positioned his body correctly between the defender and the ball and invited the foul. It duly came and Deeney did the rest, smashing it high to his right.
There was the odd alarm before the half was out. Foster pushed wide an acrobatic effort from Chicharito and then was smartly off his line to head a lofted ball away that Antonio was hoping to race onto. Apart from that, it was all pretty comfortable for the Golden Boys and then knew they had a good job when the home crowd booed their team off at the break.
There was a scare at the start of the second half when Antonio headed a corner against the post and perhaps it was that moment of aerial joy that prompted Manuel Pellegrini to sling on Andy Carroll, the giant of a centre-forward and the most potent of weapons when the ball is launched into the box.
For all their efforts, though, including a hairy moment when Kabasele tugged back Robert Snodgrass and you thought for one horrible moment Mason was going to send him off for a second time this season, it was the Hornets who came closest, Pereyra forcing Lukasz Fabianski to almost spill his effort into the path of Deeney.
They did get away with one on 66 minutes when Chicharito had a fresh air shot when just six yards out. The Mexican was still shaking his head minutes later, unable to comprehend how he didn't get a shot on target at least.
Abdoulaye Doucouré did get one firmly one target on 72 minutes, ghosting into the box to connect with a cross from Deulofeu. Fabianksi, though, pulled off the save of the match to tip his rising effort over the bar.
As the game loosened up, Doucouré was required at the other end to deny Chicharito after he had turned inside Kabasele and, with Foster just to beat, was about to pull the trigger. It was cracking defensive midfield player from the Frenchman.
Sensing the need for a bit more energy, Gracia summoned Tom Cleverley in place of Ken Sema and asked him to lock down the left side of West Ham's team where Arthur Masuaku and Felipe Anderson were combining nicely. The Hornets, though, continued to give West Ham a thing or two to worry about at the other end and Deeney should really have made the game safe on 81 minutes. He was played in by Deulofeu down the inside right and at least he got his side-footed effort on target, but a player of his calibre will be disappointed he didn't score.
Not, however, as disappointed as Antonio – who somehow hit the bar with about six minutes to go when it seemed easier to score. It proved a crucial miss as, not long after, Watford went up the other end, Pereyra and Deulofeu twinkled the magic in their feet and that was that, Deulofeu slotting into the bottom corner to send the Hornets fans wild. Happy Christmas.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Sema (Cleverley 75), Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu (Mariappa 90), Deeney (C) (Success 85).
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Masina, Quina, Okaka.