The opponents in the much-talked about daunting run of fixtures over the festive period will be more worried about Watford than the Hornets will about them. Watford are on the charge under Quique Sanchez Flores and their expectations will have to be recalibrated if they continue to show the sort of form that has now brought them three straight wins.
This latest one was not a thing of beauty and in the scale of winning ugly it was often grotesque, but that will not bother anyone connected with Watford one iota. You do not get extra marks for artistic merit in the Premier League. Watford got their noses in front with an early goal from Odion Ighalo, should have had at least one more before the break, held on by their finger tips in a nerve-jangling second half and could have extended their lead on the break at the death. It was a classic Sanchez Flores performance away from home.
Watford were quickly out of the blocks against a rejuvenated Sunderland side who have experienced a a slight upturn in fortunes in recent weeks.
Lining up against Sunderland’s back three that dearly missed the presence of the injured Younes Kaboul, Watford were ahead with the first chance of the game in the fourth minute. Troy Deeney, so often the architect, held off Billy Jones, released the marauding Allan Nyom and his superb cross from the right was diverted home by Ighalo despite the best efforts of Costel Pantilimon. The dubious goals panel may have a job to do as replays did appear to show a possible touch from Sebastian Coates on the way in, but try taking that one away from Ighalo who now has 10 for the season and 26 for the calendar year.
After an optimistic shout for hand-ball by the home faithful, the visitors ought to have doubled their lead inside the opening quarter of an hour. Ighalo was unsurprisingly at the heart of it as he toyed with John O’Shea, left him for dead and nearly squeezed his effort beyond Pantilimon. The shot was parried back to the Nigerian but his follow up was cleared brilliantly off the line by a scrambling Coates. Jose Manuel Jurado was inches away from his first Watford goal as the rebound was slammed against the left up-right.
That let off seemed to shake Sunderland into life and they were unlucky not to draw themselves level when the impressive Fabio Borini was allowed on the outside by a hesitant Miguel Britos and his driven strike across Heurelho Gomes narrowly went past the far post. The very open start to the game forced Sam Allardyce into an early tactical reshuffle as he replaced DeAndre Yedlin with Jack Rodwell and reverted to a standard 4-2-3-1 and it did the trick, closing the space that the likes of Nathan Ake had exploited in the opening exchanges to great effect.
Sunderland were growing with confidence and Watford did enough to scramble away a dangerous Patrick van Aanholt cross that Gomes could only parry. Yet the hosts respite was short lived as they were nearly architects of their own downfall. Almen Abdi latched onto a loose ball releasing the rampaging Etienne Capoue, however his decision to shoot first time may have been a mistake as Pantilimon got down well to parry to safety.
As the game opened up, more space emerged for the dangerous Borini and Jones down the right hand side, a consequence arguably of Jurado not tracking back well enough. The hosts, and in particular their captain O’Shea, were largely shackling Ighalo as Watford were content to soak up the Sunderland pressure. Borini again was alert as his ambitious ball in behind nearly connected with the lively Duncan Watmore. And on the stroke of half-time Watford had another let off as a free-kick from the left after a foul was nearly diverted into his own net by Britos under pressure from Ola Toivonen, but Gomes was alert to turn it behind in the last action of the first period.
Sunderland picked up where they left off early in the second half as first Steven Fletcher had an effort blocked by Craig Cathcart for a corner, and then the excellent Rodwell forced Gomes into action down to his left parrying away a decent drive. The former Everton midfielder was soon in the thick of things a few moments later but this time could only divert his effort high and wide.
Allardyce, sensing a way back into the game, brought on former Watford loanee Adam Johnson in the 57th minute for Borini who perhaps was a tad unfortunate to be withdrawn. The first half tactical switch by the Sunderland manager was having the desired effect closing the pockets of space that Watford had exploited in the opening exchanges and the increased urgency looked as if it would bring the desired equaliser. The impressive Rodwell, at the heart of Sunderland’s renewed energy and tempo, capitalised on a deflection off his own man but his shot on the spin cleared Gomes’ crossbar.
The warning signs were definitely there for Quique Sanchez Flores’ side, yet the introduction of Adlène Guedioura as a replacement for Abdi looked to stem the tide. The hosts nearly reaped dividends from a change of their own as Jermain Defoe, on for Fletcher, linked up beautifully with Yann M’Vila although his dangerous cross evaded everyone.
Watford were struggling to settle and impose themselves as they had done in the first half and were given a huge let-off when Defoe breached Watford’s defences and tucked beyond former teammate Gomes, only for the assistant on the far side to rule it out for offside.
Guedioura’s vision nearly released Ighalo who had beaten the Sunderland defence for pace but the pass was over hit, possibly not helped by the greasy surface. The game continued to open up as Watmore found half a yard before unleashing a speculative effort from range which narrowly went wide.
Sunderland’s dominance went by unabated and Defoe was unlucky not to drag them level but for a superb save down by Gomes down to his left. The pace and experience of the former England forward gave Sunderland a different kind of outlet for a side who bossed most of the second half.
In truth Watford struggled to get the most out of Deeney and Ighalo in a second half where the visitors were distinctly second best. The latter did, however, race away and nearly made the game safe under duress from Coates who did enough to put off the Nigerian international. Up the other end, the ball amazingly trickled wide when, after a flowing Sunderland move, it looked destined to end up in the net.
Watford continued to ride their luck but after a mazy run by Ikechi Anya, Guedioura’s placed effort at last forced Pantilimon into action. The Algerian was nearly made to pay for giving up possession cheaply as Johnson’s driven effort across goal went harmlessly wide as Sunderland continued to create and squander chances.
Guedioura did add something extra for the Hornets in the second half and his excellent link up play with Capoue released Deeney. The captain’s low drive was deflected narrowly wide for a corner as the game entered a nervy three minutes of stoppage time.
A long ball into the Watford box caused chaos as Defoe’s flick on managed to miss a trio of Sunderland players. Ighalo had a chance to add to his tally against the run of play but Pantilimon scrambled the ball away. It was probably all too frantic for everyone’s liking but points in the Premier league are hard earned. Watford now have 25 of them after 16 games. It’s extraordinary stuff.