By Kevin Affleck
Ismaïla Sarr's best performance in a Watford shirt will be overshadowed here after the Hornets lost a crucial game with Southampton at St Mary's.
Sarr rattled in a cracking goal after 24 minutes and was a constant threat throughout, but the team failed to protect the lead he brilliantly gave them, conceding two goals in five second-half minutes to tumble to a defeat that leaves the Hornets with a mountain to climb.
Defeat was harsh on Sarr, and the excellent Étienne Capoue and Adrian Mariappa, because they did so much to drag the team over the line, but the failure to kill the game stone dead when the team was on top and then the inability to keep the back door shut when Southampton started to knock louder and louder cost them dear.
It was a real pity as the first half went exactly according to the script Quique Sánchez Flores would have penned in the week.
The team were nice and solid defensively, the midfield did a wonderful screening job and the jet-heeled front two meant the Hornets were always a threat on the break. With weapons like Gerard Deulofeu and Sarr in attack, the Head Coach would have been perfectly happy to feed off 31 per cent of possession and play on the counter.
The tactic was in evidence inside two minutes when a stray pass from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg played in Sarr. You fancied the Senegal international from a central position just inside the 18-yard box, but he shot straight at Alex McCarthy. It turned out the forward was just getting his eye in as 22 minutes later he expertly lifted one over the Southampton 'keeper from a position in the inside right channel. It was a high-class finish to a nicely weighted volley down the line from Capoue. The pair communicate in French and they were certainly on the same wavelength here.
With the sort of spring in his step that only a goal can provide, Sarr almost made it two five minutes later but his sweetly-struck volley from a José Holebas cross was saved by an outstretched leg of McCarthy. Sarr couldn't believe he hadn't scored as he won't strike many sweeter than that all season. He started to grow into the game and the shirt and was playing with such confidence that he was now pulling out the party tricks, executing a lovely flick to Capoue in the middle of the Southampton half.
He carried the threat to the visitors and only a deflection from McCarthy prevented him from getting on the end of a wicked Deulofeu centre just past the half-hour mark. The visitors could have been out of sight by the break and the home fans knew it, hence the boos that cascaded down from the stands on the half-time whistle. The only time they really threatened was a cheeky back heel from James Ward-Prowse on the cusp of the break that rolled past the far post. There was also a terrific interception from Mariappa to cut out a cross from Ryan Bertrand that could have caused all sorts of bother in the box.
Ralph Hasenhüttl needed to change things as he was being outfoxed by Sánchez Flores so he opted for a double change just before the hour, bringing on Shane Long and Sofiane Boufal. Sánchez Flores made a change of his own soon after, introducing Andre Gray for Deulofeu. It was Southampton's subs who combined first, though, Boufal getting round the back of Craig Cathcart and standing up a cross for Long. He must have thought he had scored against the Hornets for the umpteenth time but he didn't bank on Ben Foster producing yet another extraordinary save to add to his back catalogue.
Craig Cathcart arguably went one better a few minutes later, clearing one off the line from Long to prevent a certain goal. Sánchez Flores sensed the danger and threw on Nathaniel Chalobah for Hughes to shore things up, but the England international was only on the field for four minutes when Danny Ings bundled one in at the near post.
Five minutes later and the Saints had completed the turnaround, Ward-Prowse curling in a free-kick past Foster. You felt it was coming. The Hornets huffed and puffed at the end, even throwing Foster up for a set-piece, and they came agonisingly close to securing a draw when Capoue saw a volley drop just wide and then McCarthy had to tip one over from the lively Sarr, but it felt like even a draw here wouldn't have been enough. You just had to see the reaction of Cathcart and Mariappa at full-time to know what a missed opportunity this was.
HORNETS: Foster; Mariappa, Cathcart, Masina; Femenía (Foulquier 82), Doucouré, Capoue, Hughes (Chalobah 74), Holebas; Deulofeu (Gray 64), Sarr.
Subs not used: Gomes, Deeney, Quina and Pereyra.