By Kevin Affleck
Ah, that was tough to take, real tough.
The Golden Boys were nine minutes from celebrating a famous league and cup double over Spurs when the boys from the white half of North London plundered two late goals in the space of four minutes. The Hornets gave themselves a second bite of the cherry when Étienne Capoue stroked in an 89th-minute equaliser to take a thriller of a game to penalties, but lady luck was not shining on the Golden Boys when it came to spot-kicks.
Capoue and Domingos Quina both missed from 12 yards while Spurs flawlessly converted all of theirs to book their place in the fourth round. Capoue had his shirt over his head as he trudged off to hide his disappointment, while Quina needed to be consoled by Will Hughes and Adrian Mariappa. It was cruel on Capoue, who has probably been the player of the season so far, and Quina, who was the star of the last round at Reading. Troy Deeney is nursing some broken toes but there will be a few broken hearts to be mended in the coming days.
Once the disappointment of the exit subsides – and it may take a while for this bitter pill to go down – there will be so much to admire about the spirited performance in this helter-skelter cup tie. Spurs boasted a starting XI with 380 international caps yet this much-changed Watford team went toe to toe with them and gave them a real run for their money. Spurs knew they were in one hell of a game and they were pushed all the way. Their relief at the final whistle was obvious. They knew they had dodged a bullet.
In running Spurs close and showing that the win over them at Vicarage Road was no fluke, this team showed again just how deep the first team squad is and how it is packed with talent, character and hunger. Plenty of them will have good reason to be banging on Javi Gracia's door should the first XI dip below the high standards they have been setting.
Isaac Success, who put the Hornets in front, was a wrecking ball in attack; Spaniards Kiko Feminía and Marc Navarro dovetailed well down the right flank; Adam Masina showed why experts in Serie A thought the Hornets had pulled of a smart piece of business in signing the left-back from Bologna, with the Italian even nutmegging Harry Winks towards the end.
Ben Wilmot again played with a maturity beyond his 18 years, switching seamlessly from the heart of the midfield to the heart of defence, while Nathaniel Chalobah patrolled the midfield like a man who is recapturing the form he displayed pre-injury. And what a snip Quina looks. There was so much to celebrate about the display and not a bad performance out there. Everyone stuck their hand up and was at least a seven out of 10.
Watford started tentatively, which was no surprise given most of this lot had not played since last month, but once they got into their stride, once they got to grips with the unfamiliar surroundings of Stadium MK and once they realised Tottenham were to be respected but not feared, they looked the part.
The wide players featured prominently and the attack was two pronged, coming from the left and the right. Femenía teased one over from the right and then Masina slung one over from the other side in a clear sign that the Hornets saw their best route to goal coming via flanks.
Success registered the first of the Hornets' three attempts on target in the first period and that seemed to give Navarro the inclination to try his luck. He pulled the trigger from distance twice in the space of as many minutes, the second of which dipped late and caused real excitement in the away end.
Serge Aurier and Toby Alderweireld then had to combine to stop Ken Sema from having a shot at goal from close range after more good approach play from Navarro and Success. The Hornets were looking the more likely side to find the breakthrough and the confidence they were playing with was summed up by the pass of the half – a cross-field bullet that was as precise as it was powerful – by Wilmot to Femenía. It was the sort you expected Dele Alli to be playing to, say, Serge Aurier.
You wondered if half-time came at the wrong time, just when the Hornets were starting to hit top gear, but they carried on where they finished off and were in front before some fans had even time to come back from after the break. Femenía was quickest to a loose ball and then picked out the arcing run of Success. The Nigerian held off the challenge of Aurier, which is no mean feat, and then thumped the ball past Paulo Gazzaniga. Success cupped his ears in celebration and the noise around him will only increase after his second goal in as many starts.
The Golden Boys were now sizzling and not long after a neat move involving Chalobah and Femenía resulted in the Spaniard warming the hands of Gazzaniga. The Golden Boys were not content just to sit back – they wanted a second.
But then came the Spurs response. Adrian Mariappa blocked one from Moussa Sissoko from close range, Quina, who is probably the team's least defence-minded player, hacked one clear in his own penalty area and then Wilmot did brilliantly to get in behind Heurelho Gomes and clear one off the line from Heung-Min Son.
Spurs knew they were in trouble and not long after sending for the cavalry in the shape of big hitters Mousa Dembélé and Son, Mauricio Pochettino threw on Fernando Llorente. It was now win or bust for Spurs.
Gracia made changes of his own, replacing Femenía with Hughes and Navarro with Christian Kabasele. The Belgian had only been on the field for three minutes when Alli went down easily under his challenge. Referee Lee Mason felt there was enough contact to award a penalty and send off Kabasele. The questionable decision was compounded when Alli converted the penalty.
Spurs now had the bit between their teeth and three minutes later, they were in front when Erik Lamela scored from close range.
Game over, or so you thought. Back came Watford and back they came with a bang. Spurs thought they had won it but they hadn't reckoned on this team digging deep once more. Some purposeful play from Success led to Adrian Mariappa teeing up Capoue and he stroked the ball in via a deflection off Ben Davies. The away fans went wild.
You wondered if the Hornets might have the advantage when the penalty kicks were taken in front of their army of travelling fans. You thought it might be their night after all. But it was not to be. There is no crueller way to go out than on penalties, but the Hornets had a right good go and Pochettino was one relieved man in the post-match press conference.
HORNETS | Gomes; Navarro (Kabasele 77), Cathcart, Mariappa (C), Masina; Femenía (Hughes 68), Wilmot, Chalobah, Quina, Sema (Capoue 84); Success.
Subs not used | Dahlberg (GK), Pereyra, Holebas, Gray.