By Kevin Affleck
So it looks like the race for seventh spot is going right down to the wire after Andre Gray conjured up yet another crucial late goal at Vicarage Road.
For so long it looked like the Golden Boys were going to completely blow the chance to steal a march on Everton and lose some momentum in the run-in, but Gray rescued them yet again with a 90th-minute goal, adding to the decisive ones he got against Everton, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Fulham. The point wasn’t ideal and not what anybody connected with the club was after pre-match, but this one was hard earned and, you never know, might prove crucial in the final analysis.
The Hornets didn’t play well by any stretch of the imagination and this was a tough watch at times, but it’s a sign of a good side when you can dig out a point when you are nowhere near your best. Other Watford sides would have lost this one in recent seasons.
You have to give the Saints credit. They were in no mood to play ball and they proved the most awkward of opponents, giving the Hornets as searching an examination as anyone outside of the top six has managed to do at this quaint old ground this season. There was no doubting the visitors deserved a point at the very least and if we are being honest, which we like to be on here, they should probably have won this one.
You kind of got the feeling it was going to be one of those nights for Hornets when Craig Cathcart, that most reliable of performers, made a mistake from kick-off to hand Shane Long the fastest goal in Premier League history. Nothing really went right for Gracia’s side thereafter and it looked like they were going to fire a blank at home for the first time since the middle of January until Gray managed to dig one out with his weaker left foot and beat Angus Gunn at the near post. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals, but who cares?
It was a very unusual performance from a Gracia side. There was no faulting the effort of the players but they just lacked anything resembling cohesion in the final third and were at six and sevens at the back, particularly in the first half. They needed a bit of magic from Gerard Deulofeu or Roberto Pereyra to get them out of jail but, for once, it never came. And, to be truthful, it never looked like happening either until Gray, out of nowhere really, forced one in late on. You cannot play well every week and the opposition are allowed to play well, which is what combined to happen here.
Gracia expressed pre-match his wish for a clean sheet but that went out of the window after just seven seconds, 7.69 second if we are being precise. Étienne Capoue routinely played the ball back to Cathcart from kick-off. He took a touch and then slammed it straight into Long who caught him unaware with the speed and conviction of his charge down. The ball bounced kindly for the Republic of Ireland international who took one touch and then beat the on-rushing Ben Foster with his next. It was the sort of start nightmares are made of.
It could have been 1-1 after just two bonkers minutes, though, had Gray, with two bites of the cherry, not struck his first effort from a Will Hughes cross straight at Gunn and then headed the rebound over the bar. The first 120 seconds set the tone for a frenetic first half and it took some working out how there was only one goal in the game at the break.
Deulofeu curled one wide of the right-hand post and drilled one past the left-hand post in the best of the chances for the home side who were, if we are being kind, disjointed in the first half. Southampton really disrupted the Golden Boys’ rhythm and got under their skin, to such an extent that Deulofeu was picking a fight with Ryan Bertrand at half-time. Even Abdoulaye Doucouré was dragged into things and he was booked for an unusually cynical tackle on Stuart Armstrong on halfway.
Southampton were by far the calmer and more dead-eyed of the two sides. They probably went in at half-time wondering how they weren’t at least three up. Long headed one wide, Foster prevented Nathan Redmond from capitalising on another Cathcart mistake, Redmond had an even better chance soon after and then Bertrand hit the outside of the post just before half-time. It was the most open the Hornets had been all season – and that’s including the madcap first 45 minutes at the Vitality Stadium.
Gracia took decisive action at the break, removing Cathcart, bringing on Kiko Femenía and switching to three at the back. He had to, as things just didn’t click in the first half. There wasn’t an obvious change in things at the start of the second half. Deulofeu got down the right a couple of times but that was about it. Southampton were working their socks off, proving really difficult to break down, busy in midfield, while always a threat in behind with the pace and clever runs of Redmond and Long.
The game was so open, so end to end, that in the space of ten minutes, Christian Kabasele shouted for a penalty at one end and then came within a whisker of giving one away at the other end, bringing down the free-running Long just outside the area.
Gracia opted for one final throw of the dice by sending for Isaac Success, but the Nigerian hadn’t even had time to jog into position when James Ward-Prowse forced Foster to beat away a goal-bound free-kick. A Southampton second always looked more likely than a Watford equaliser, but then came a late rally.
Pereyra went close with the sort of chance he would have buried earlier in the season and then one fell Gray’s way and he does what he does best, managing to find the back of the net by hook or by crook. The celebrations were one of relief more than joy. There are likely to be more twists and turns to come in this thrilling season so hold on tight.
HORNETS | Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart (Femenía h-t), Kabasele, Masina; Hughes (Success 77), Doucouré, Capoue (C), Pereyra; Deulofeu, Gray.
Subs not used: Gomes, Britos, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah.