By Kevin Affleck
The priority was always going to be the FA Cup anyway.
This game, decided by a 13-minute hat-trick from Raheem Sterling, against Manchester City was never going to define Watford’s season as you don't finish as ‘best rest of the rest’ based on your performances against a side who have now won 15 out of 16 at home. The important thing was that the Hornets got out of here with their pride intact, which they did thanks to Gerard Deulofeu’s consolation goal with his first touch, and did not pick up any injuries ahead of the last-eight showdown with Crystal Palace in the FA Cup on Saturday.
That box was positively ticked as well, although there were a few who were in danger of damaging their larynx after a decision by Paul Tierney at the start of the second half that unquestionably turned the game.
City would probably have won the game anyway, so they certainly didn’t need a helping hand from Tierney and his assistant who deemed Sterling was not offside when Agüero played him in in the left-hand side channel. They will argue that Daryl Janmaat played the ball onto him, thus rendering him onside, but the England winger was clearly active, interfering with play and was the target of Agüero’s initial pass.
It was a decision that enraged even some of the mild-mannered members of the team, particularly captain Étienne Capoue and Tom Cleverley. Miguel Britos was still debating it with Tierney 15 minutes later. Christian Kabasele was straight up to the ref at full-time. It was a match-turning call with the game in the balance at 0-0.
It was such a shame as the Hornets had played so manfully up to that point.
Javi Gracia asked for “perfect defensive work” ahead of this game and he just about got it in the first period. City enjoyed 70 per cent of the ball and had nine shots to Watford’s none, but there were not too many hairy moments for the visitors. The Hornets were nice and compact, matched City up in the middle of the park with three midfielders and got the returning Kiko Femenía and the recalled Isaac Success to act as a screen in front of full-backs Daryl Janmaat and Adam Masina.
Chances were few and far between for the hosts. David Silva, one of the smallest players on the pitch, beat Ben Foster to an in-swinging cross from Riyad Mahrez and flicked it just past the far post. The same player had another shot beaten away by Foster, Oleksandr Zinchenko flashed one across the face of goal and Agüero had a rising shot parried away for a corner by Foster. The best chance was headed wide by Agüero on 30 minutes, the Argentine managing to steer a header past the far post from a Bernardo Silva cross. It was the sort of chance the league’s leading scorer usually gobbles up.
There were boos and jeers at half-time from the City fans and it was difficult to tell if they were for the home side, referee Tierney, or Foster, who had used all his years of experience to slow the game down.
The brave, stoic resistance was broken within minutes of the second half – and this time it was Watford rightly taking issue with Tierney after Sterling’s first goal was allowed to stand. It was a goal that knocked the stuffing out of the Golden Boys. And you can understand why as they had worked so hard up until that point. They were still reeling from the injustice of the decision when Sterling scored his second just minutes later from a classic City move.
He had the match ball nine minutes later and that was it, game over, done and dusted. It was then a question of how many City might get and an exercise in damage-limitation for the visitors.
You thought Gracia might batten down the hatches and bring on Craig Cathcart, but he went the other way and chucked on Troy Deeney and Deulofeu. It proved a masterstroke as within 17 seconds, Watford were back in it when Deeney nodded one into the path of Deulofeu and he did the rest.
Game on with a third of the match left? Not quite. City would have extended their lead had Foster not saved well from Bernardo Silva and Kabasele, who got better as the match wore on, produced a fine sliding block to deny Gabriel Jesus. You are always going to need a few saves from goalkeeper and the odd last-ditch tackle to stand any chance when you come here, but you also need a slice of luck and the rub of the green and the Hornets never got that.
HORNETS: Foster (GK); Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos (Cathcart 82), Masina; Femenía (Deeney 65), Cleverley, Capoue, Doucouré, Success (Deulofeu 65); Gray.
Subs not used: Gomes (GK), Sema, Quina, Holebas.