Watford look safe after M’Baye Niang and Troy Deeney see off West Brom
Home team scorers M'Baye Niang 13 Troy Deeney 49
Two moments of attacking brilliance from M’Baye Niang lit up this fractious and ill-tempered game, the Milan loanee scoring one goal and creating another in spectacular style while around him boots, and indeed bookings, were flying about wildly. His 20-yard curler in the 13th minute set Watford on their way to a victory which all but confirms their place in the top flight for another season, though Miguel Britos’s sending-off with 25 minutes to play meant the game was more a struggle than a celebration.
Though this appeared to be a very different test to the one presented by Manchester United at Old Trafford, where Albion ground out a goalless draw on Saturday, Tony Pulis not only chose the same starting XI but stuck with six of his seven substitutes. Perhaps it was fatigue after those exertions that meant that, after so much diligent defensive work against more lauded opponents, Craig Dawson was so slow to close down Niang as he cut across the edge of the penalty area with 13 minutes played and lined up his shot.
By then the visitors could already have been in the lead, Hal Robson-Kanu letting Darren Fletcher’s seventh-minute pass run through to Nacer Chadli, who ran clear only to strike his first shot into the onrushing Heurelho Gomes, and then spear the rebound in the wrong direction from a yard, albeit from an unpromising angle. The same player came significantly closer from a much greater distance when, five minutes from the break, his 25-yard free-kick curled just wide, kissing a post on its way.
Those moments aside, a Watford defence featuring three centre-halves, one of them stationed at right-back in a move straight from Pulis’s own copybook, reached half-time looking largely secure, even if Albion’s determined harrying made their repeated attempts to pass the ball out of their own half appear a little foolhardy.
That is not to say that they were comfortable: in two minutes of first-half stoppage time Sebastian Prödl was forced off with an injury while the left-back José Holebas first had his shin raked by Dawson, who went puzzlingly unpunished, and was then kicked in the ankle with the ball nowhere to be seen by James McClean, who was booked.
McClean, who was criticised by Troy Deeney for his unnecessarily aggressive contribution to West Brom’s 3-1 win over these opponents in December, was to play no further part in the game. Matt Phillips, returning to the squad after five games and nearly two months out with a hamstring injury, replaced him at the break and immediately offered improved support for the hitherto rather isolated Robson-Kanu.
But within minutes Watford proved that a forward can flourish even in isolation if the passes he receives are good enough. Niang’s first-time 50-yard curling through-ball was impeccable, finding Deeney racing between Jonny Evans and Allan Nyom. In desperation Evans flung out a foot, bringing the striker down and diverting the ball, only for it to bobble up invitingly for Deeney to prod it past the stranded Ben Foster.
They may have increased their lead but Watford were far from comfortable. In the 54th minute Jake Livermore tackled Niang from behind just in front of the dugouts, and an incensed Walter Mazzarri had to be restrained as he rushed to confront Pulis.
Livermore was not punished for that but was booked for a foul on Daryl Janmaat moments later, after which he too was swiftly substituted. Unlike West Brom, Watford did not have a policy of immediately replacing players on a booking, and when Britos gave the ball away and then tugged Salomón Rondón’s shirt in the aftermath he duly received a second, and the Hornets were faced with 25 minutes of desperate defending.