September 15, 2018
There may be something in the notion that Jose Mourinho is obsessed with the notion that everyone is obsessed with him but the Manchester United manager can wake up on Sunday morning feeling the surge of happiness that comes from three points. A narrow victory over Watford was coloured with a blush of pink relief.
Lukaku and Smalling strike as Manchester United end Watford’s streak
United sparkled for long enough to give themselves a two-goal leg up but ended up clinging on to a win over opponents whose qualities showed their flying start to the season has been no fluke. Goals from Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling tilted a vehemently contested match.
Lukaku and Smalling strike as Manchester United end Watford’s streak
Watford’s state of blissful cohesion – so in the groove Javi Gracia has not felt the need to tinker with their starting XI at all so far this season – created a feelgood factor the club endeavoured to promote. Yellow and black t-shirts were given out and a swirl of flags on the Rookery further ramped the atmosphere up. The expectancy was laid bare. Manchester United had plenty deal with and knew a high level would be required.
The stage was set for teams in slightly different moods to trade opportunities, to chase chances, to make the difference. United came out strongly as Alexis Sánchez fizzed the ball into Lukaku, and Ben Foster was fleet of foot, and brave, to halt the Belgian.
Still, Watford’s confidence rippled through the team and they were not bent out of shape by an early scare. Will Hughes demonstrated a flash of finesse with a 360-degree turn to create the space to take aim a little too close to David de Gea. The United keeper had to be at his best to thwart Watford’s next attack. Troy Deeney let fly – the ferocity of his effort matched by De Gea’s reaction save.
Full commitment was on show. When another attack fell to Aboulaye Doucouré, his shot shuddered straight into Marouane Fellaini’s block. It was a moment when you could almost wince for the ball, caught as it was between two giants competing earnestly.
The current changed to carry United forward again. Sánchez raced into the penalty area to hammer in an angled shot. Foster sprang to tip the ball over.
The game ebbed and flowed in both directions until United forced the issue and found a breakthrough in the 35th minute. It all started with a free kick, won when Jesse Lingard was hauled back by Étienne Capoue. A scruffy affair ended up with Ashley Young’s whipped pass catching Watford’s defence out. The ball brushed Lukaku’s torso and drifted past Foster and in.. A goal in off the stomach? They all count.
United suddenly slipped up through the gears, the tempo of their game and the brightness of their touch lifted. The second goal – the one that really changed the complexion of the contest – was delivered by Smalling, who finessed his cushioned chest control by swivelling to slam the ball past Foster. Mourinho’s touchline celebration was vigorous.
Within the 15-minute spell leading up to half-time Pogba did his utmost to extend United’s lead with three dazzling attempts. Foster had to impress to keep the deficit down to only two.
Now it was a huge test of Watford’s newly honed spirit. But their task was made even more complicated by United coming back out after the break with the intent to be solid and resilient, with the capacity to express themselves going forward when the moment presented itself. Pogba dominanted. Lukaku maintained a physical presence.
In fairness to Watford their endeavour, and approach in trying to build positive football, didn’t let up even if the barrier was difficult to overcome in the second half. They were rewarded with a foothold back into the game, engineered by a smart passing move which culminated in the excellent Doucouré shimmying and picking out a perfect reverse pass for Andre Gray to plant past De Gea.
Watford came again, and a warning light flashed for United when Smalling nudged at Deeney as he looked to make inroads in the penalty area. Once upon a time a 2-0 lead for a Mourinho team was a dead game but this was prised back open, chances cropping up at both ends.
Craig Cathcart flew in with a courageous last-ditch tackle to deny Sánchez at the end of a searing United counterattack and Christian Kabasele dispossessed Anthony Martial with expert timing to keep the Watford pot boiling. In the dying moments Nemanja Matic was sent off for clattering Hughes, and from the free-kick De Gea produced one of his hallmark saves to keep out Kabasele’s header.
After their exhilarating start to the season, this always looked like the period where Watford’s mettle would be tested and they did not have quite enough to maintain their unbeaten run. But it was not for the want of trying. The crowd’s generous applause at the end of it all was well deserved.
Lukaku and Smalling strike as Manchester United end Watford’s streak
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