By Kevin Affleck
He never gives the way away, as the song goes, but here Abdoulaye Doucouré ensured Watford did not throw away a game against Newcastle for the second time this season.
With ten minutes left of a match that was a difficult watch and with the Hornets seemingly sleepwalking towards back-to-back defeats against the Magpies, Doucouré stole into the box like a seasoned attacking midfielder and thumped in a header from a Gerard Deulofeu cross. It was a goal that got his side out of jail as they had been sluggish and in desperate need of some inspiration.
Nobody affiliated to Watford was seeking a point pre-match, especially after how events panned out in the fixture at St James' Park, but this was one of those days when you are grateful for anything after playing considerably below your usual standard. Take the point, forget about how you got it and how you played and move onto the next one.
Javi Gracia made six changes in a bid to avoid fatigue becoming a factor, but instead the Hornets looked disjointed and a shadow of the side who had a real crack at Chelsea in midweek. He was hoping to give the likes of Troy Deeney and Doucouré the afternoon off, but it was a sign of how things were not going according to plan that he summoned them from the bench nine minutes after half-time.
It has to be said that Newcastle are not a soft touch and their only defeat in their previous five away games was at Liverpool, and we all know how easily the wheels can come off there. They were good value for at least a point here as they worked hard, were tactically disciplined and defended stoutly. It was no smash and grab.
You just expected a bit more from the Hornets, a bit of magic from Roberto Pereyra, a twinkling of the toes from Deulofeu or some good old-fashioned No. 9 play from Isaac Success or substitute Deeney. But the Magpies snuffed them out and did a number on the Golden Boys who just couldn't figure out a way through or come up with an answer until Doucouré popped up with that header. Gracia will have been disappointed as he has been all season as this performance wasn't at the level he so often talks about.
The omens were there from the outset as the Hornets looked disjointed in the first period and never played with any fluency. Having said that, things may have been completely different had Deulofeu tucked away their best chance after 15 minutes, but it went begging, just like it did at St James' Park.
Sensing it might be their day again against the wasteful Hornets, Newcastle were not about to look a gift horse in the mouth and they rocked the home side with the opening goal on 28 minutes. Christian Atsu did all the hard work, selling Will Hughes like a kipper in spinning 180 degrees and then sending Matt Ritchie down the left wing. His delicious cross was so inviting and the sort every No. 9 craves. Salomón Rondón charged onto it and headed it powerfully past Ben Foster, who stood no chance. The Hornets had conceded a goal before they had conceded a corner.
The goal gave Newcastle an even greater belief and had the opposite effect on the Hornets, who became nervy and unsure. Soon after, you had the usually dependable Craig Cathcart caught dallying by Mohamed Diamé in the middle of the field and almost putting Rondón clear for a shot at his second.
The former West Bromwich Albion forward did have the ball in the net on 39 minutes from a cross by Ayoze Pérez but, fortunately, he was flagged offside. It was just as well as 2-0 is a long way back against a side organised so well by Rafa Benítez.
The Golden Boys ended the half on the front foot, with Success thrashing one effort straight at Martin Dúbravka and then seeing another deflected over by an excellent last-ditch challenge by Federico Fernandez, but the knowledgeable Hornets' fans knew they had not seen the best of their side and there were a few jeers as the players sloped off at the break.
Deeney stayed out at half-time and you thought he was going to be thrown at the break, but it was Newcastle who made the first change, bringing on Fabian Schär for the presumably injured Fernandez.
“C'mon Watford, c'mon Watford,” bellowed the home fans as they sought to inject some life into their side, but it was Newcastle who had the first sight of goal, the axis of Ritchie and Rondón combining again for the hulking striker to head over from a corner. It was not the fast start by the home side we had hoped for.
Gracia had seen enough and, in 53 minutes, responded by making a double change, bringing on Deeney and Doucouré for Will Hughes and Domingos Quina and then shunting Deulofeu out to the right.
It changed very little and the Hornets were still searching for that spark when Gracia summoned José Holebas, his goal-scoring and assist-making left-back, from the bench with just over ten minutes remaining. You suspected the assault on the Newcastle goal would now come from the left but, instead, the ball was played to the right, Deulofeu produced a cross equally good as Ritchie’s in the first half and Doucouré’s header was the equal of Rondón's.
The Hornets pushed frenziedly for a winner, but it wouldn't have been deserved had they got one and they can be thankful for a point when defeat seemed on the cards. You can't play well every week.
HORNETS | Foster (GK); Janmaat, Mariappa (C), Cathcart, Masina (Holebas 79); Hughes (Deeney 53), Capoue, Quina (Doucouré 53) Pereyra; Deulofeu, Success.
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Britos, Cleverley, Sema.