Match Report: Watford 2-1 Wolves
By Kevin Affleck
There are seismic moments in any season. Think the thrilling win over Tranmere in 1999 with nine men. This backs-to-the-wall, heart-stopping win over Wolves, achieved with ten men for the last 20 minutes, felt like one of those.
There is plenty of the season to play, another 17 games to be precise, so you may need to strap yourself in and hold on tight, but we may well look back at events this afternoon at a jumping Vicarage Road as the big turning point, when the great escape was well and truly was on.
Two goals up and heading for a third straight win at home, the Hornets were forced to dig as deep as they have done in many moons to pull this one out the bag after Christian Kabasele was sent off with 20 minutes to go. But this team has something about it and the fact three of the last four wins have been achieved with ten men says this group has, as Troy Deeney would say, some cajones as well as suggesting they are never going to make things easy for themselves.
The fist pump Nigel Pearson gave the Sir Elton John stand at the final whistle spoke of an iron will this team has and how they just don't know they are beaten, how they are now hellbent on dragging themselves out of this situation. The crowd were extraordinary, as extraordinary off the pitch as the likes of Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré were on it. The noise when João Moutinho smashed one over at the end was deafening and every clearance was cheered from the rafters. Everyone is most definitely in this together and the whole place is transformed, the mood is completely different.
It was all quite cagey stuff early on. The early exchanges were summed up by a shot from the excellent Nathaniel Chalobah that cannoned into the unsuspecting Deeney and then a pass Matt Doherty allowed to roll over his foot and drift out for a throw. Both sides were waiting for that spark of ingenuity and for things to be a bit more cohesive.
Wolves got things together a bit quicker. Ben Foster was smartly off his line to save at the feet of Doherty and was relieved that Raúl Jimenez put one wide after Ryan Bennett picked out the Mexican with a ball straight through the heart of the defence. He remonstrated with his centre-halves after that one, feeling Jimenez had got in too easily. He had a point.
From that moment, the team regrouped and started to string one or two moves together at the other end. Chalobah curled one over, Kiko Femenía fizzed one tantalisingly across the face that Doucouré was a whisker away from connecting with, then Ismaïla Sarr forced a low save from Rui Patrício with one he swung his left foot at.
You wondered if that one would represent the Hornets' best chance of the half but, fortunately, another one arrived one minute later and was grabbed with both hands. Sarr turned provider this time, laying one on perfectly for Deulofeu to steer into the far corner past the outstretched dive of the Portugal 'keeper. It was classic Deulofeu, just the type of opportunity he loves.
The relief was palpable. It could have been even better had a snapshot from Deulofeu dropped under the bar and Sarr not crashed one into the side-netting. Still, they ended the half in the ascendancy, with the momentum and never took their foot off the pedal.
Four minutes after the break and the team were two goals to the good, given that all-important breathing space by Doucouré's first goal at this place since April. Yes, the strike got a deflection that took it spectacularly into the roof of the net, but Doucouré, on his birthday, deserved the break for persistently getting in the right areas and his drive to get into the box. It was all starting to go right for the home side. There was a backheel from Femenía and then Craig Dawson attempted a slide-rule pass to Sarr.
You hoped the last half-hour might be fairly straight-forward, like it was against Manchester United and Aston Villa here, but nothing is plain sailing in this league. You get nothing for free at this exalted level.
It was always going to take something spectacular or lucky to beat Foster here for the first time in 302 minutes and it proved to be the latter. Neto let fly from distance and it took a wicked deflection off Kabasele and sailed over Foster, who stood no chance. The goal caused nerves to jangle and raised pulses. The tension then reached unbearable levels when Kabasele was sent off on the say-so of VAR for a foul on Diogo Jota. It was deemed a goal-scoring opportunity.
It was now all hands to the pump, with Adam Masina sent on to bolster the defence. He immediately rushed out to take one in the mush from a short corner while Romain Saïss forced Foster to scramble across his line and palm a header round the post. You had Capoue shepherding Adama Traoré out of play at one end and then hunting down Conor Coady at the other. Craig Cathcart, cool as a cucumber, even found time to perform a show and go in his own box to avert danger involving Jota.
It was, in the end, fairly comfortable by and large, and the three points felt as significant, if not more so, than the stunning Wembley win over Wolves. It was one of those 'I was there' afternoons at this grand old place. GT, who managed both sides, would have loved it.
HORNETS: Foster; Dawson, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía (Holebas 59); Chalobah, Capoue, Doucouré; Sarr (Pereyra 90), Deeney (C), Deulofeu (Masina 72).
Subs not used: Gomes (GK), Gray, Quina and Success.