By Kevin Affleck
Just when you thought Watford's luck was well and truly out in front of goal, just when you thought the ball was never going to go in, José Holebas, of all people, popped up and showed everybody how it is done by rattling one in.
Okay, there was a deflection on his 82nd-minute strike to take it past Alex McCarthy, but who cares? We'll take that thank you very much. The Hornets needed that bit of luck, that slice of good fortune and it was probably going to take a fortuitous goal like that to set the boys back on their way. They had bought enough raffle tickets in away games this season – 41 shots at Fulham, Arsenal and Newcastle – so it was about time they won the raffle.
The goal by Holebas rescued a point for the Hornets, a point they probably deserved purely on the basis they had a right go in the last 20 minutes, ending the match with a front four of Isaac Success, Troy Deeney, Andre Gray and Gerard Deulofeu. Javi Gracia probably would also have thrown on Stefano Okaka if he could but he just couldn't find room for the big Italian.
The equaliser, cancelling out Manolo Gabbiadini's 20th-minute opener, also meant the decision by referee Simon Hooper to not award the Hornets the most blatant of penalties was not as costly as it looked like it might be,
Hooper seemed to have the easiest decision to make when Nathaniel Chalobah was scythed down in the area by Ryan Bertrand just before the hour mark. It was as close to a stone-waller as you are going to get. Troy Deeney, on as a first-half sub for Will Hughes, was already making his way to collect the loose ball in anticipation of the whistle being blown.
But, to much dismay, the decision never came. Chalobah, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Deeney were apoplectic. Gracia was as animated as you'll ever seen him the technical area. He was hopping mad and petitioning fourth official Andre Mariner. They couldn't believe it, they couldn't quite get their head around the fact that the well-positioned Hooper had not spotted that Bertrand had taken Chalobah before the ball. But that's just the way the cookie crumbles for the Hornets and when your luck is out, it is well and truly out.
You could argue, though, that you make your own luck in this game and that the Hornets should have put away three presentable chances in the first half, but sometimes you need a helping hand and the footballing gods to smile on you now and then. Eventually, they got their big break with Holebas' goal, but boy were we put through the wringer again before that. It looked like a repeat of the Newcastle game all over again.
As good as it was to salvage something from the game, the long and the short of it is that the demanding Gracia will be hugely disappointed to have returned from trips to Newcastle and Southampton with just one measly point. Those games, against sides who were in varying states of crisis, would have been viewed as a good chance to build on the momentum gained by those back-to-back wins over Wolves and Huddersfield. Now the Hornets have to regroup, start again and redouble their efforts after the international break, starting with a rather tricky home tie against Liverpool.
The team did not play badly here, but they did not play particularly well either. It was a six or seven out of 10 team performance, with again nobody really staking a compelling claim to be man-of-the-match. Ben Foster probably came as close as anyone, but you don't really want your goalkeeper being your best player.
Gracia boldly resisted the temptation to make drastic tactical surgery following the disappointing defeat at Newcastle. He could easily have recalled Deeney and Christian Kabasele, but he felt the need to keep faith with the lot who could have won 3-0 at Newcastle on another day, opting to make the one enforced change by bringing in Chalobah for the suspended Étienne Capoue.
The Hornets made a carbon copy of the start they made at Newcastle: full of running and rapier-like counter-attacks. They looked to set Success and Deulofeu running free at every opportunity and the pair were again to the fore early on.
Deulofeu had the best chance after just four minutes when Kiko Femenía played him through. He did everything right, taking his first touch towards goal rather than go wide and then opting to go himself rather than try and find Success like he did at Newcastle. He struck his right-footed shot low, firm and got it on target, but McCarthy got down low to keep it out. You felt even then, at that embryonic stage of the game, that it was a big chance.
Undeterred, Deulofeu tried his luck with his weaker left foot minutes later after some muscular play from Success, curling his effort just over.
Success then got in on the act, ending a powerful driving run at the heart of the Saints defence with a firmly struck effort with his left foot that the excellent Wesley Hoedt deflected over with a fine block.
You could definitely sense the tension amongst the home supporters and it wouldn't have taken a lot for them to turn on their own. But the crucial first goal went their way and they were cheering instead of jeering.
Not long after Hoedt had stirred the hosts into life with a towering header from a corner that Ben Foster palmed into the air, Craig Cathcart mis-kicked from a corner and then, just to compound things, Roberto Pereyra dallied when he needed to be decisive. Danny Ings picked his pocket, the ball rolled into the path of Gabbiadini and he wasn't going to miss from such close range.
All of a sudden the mood changed and the Saints now had a spring in their step, evidenced by the pirouette Hoedt did to evade Chalobah.
From wondering where their next goal was coming from, the home side could have been celebrating a two-goal cushion at the break. Maya Yoshida flicked a header just wide from a Mario Lemina cross and, more notably, Foster had to stick out a leg to prevent Stuart Armstrong beating him at the near post. It was quite a turnaround from the opening 15 minutes when it had been all Watford.
The Hornets still managed to carve out three more chances – Deulofeu flashed a cross-shot across the face of goal which McCarthy parried, Pereyra tried to bend another one into the far corner and Deulofeu should really have picked out the overlapping run of Doucouré with a more precise pass – but the momentum had definitely swung the Saints' way and Gracia had a job on his hands at the break to get it back.
Whatever perceptive words and tactical instructions Gracia offered at half-time, they nearly went out of the window within 60 seconds, as the lively Gabbiadini came within a whisker of curling one into the far corner with his left foot. Foster stood motionless, hoping and praying the ball didn't land in the back of the net. Thankfully it didn't.
There was then a half-chance for Deeney at the near post and that huge penalty appeal for a clear foul on Chalobah. Charlie Austin's game, set and match goal was ruled out for offside soon after, but the Hornets certainly made the most of the reprieve.
There wasn't much finesse about it but they kept plugging away and eventually got their rewards when Holebas' effort, by hook or by crook, found the bottom corner. It was just what the doctor ordered. The way Doucouré celebrated wildly in front of the away fans spoke of the relief that one had finally gone in.
With their foot to the floor, the Hornets pushed the harder of the two sides for the winner, but despite the odd out-of-the-seat moment, it wasn't to be and both teams had to settle for a point. And that was probably just about right.
HORNETS | Foster; Femenía, Mariappa (C), Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes (Deeney 39), Chalobah, Doucouré, Pereyra (Gray 68); Deulofeu, Success.
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Masina, Wilmot, Kabasele, Okaka.