A spirited Watford succumbed to an 89th-minute sucker-punch from Tottenham Hotspur during a feisty encounter that swung like the bells the pre-match Christmas carol singers rattled here at Vicarage Road.
Watford started the day knowing victory would put them equal on points with fourth-placed Spurs, but ended the year with 10-men and disappointment etched on the players’ faces after Son Heung-min snatched a late, late winner that had more than a whiff of offside about it.
Erik Lamela had given Spurs the lead, before Odion Ighalo replied to continue his remarkable scoring run, netting his seventh goal in six matches shortly before half-time. The dismissal of Nathan Aké midway through the second period, however, was the game-changing decision in what proved an unnecessarily card-heavy clash for referee Anthony Taylor. He was booed off at full-time and left the field under the protection of two club officials.
With the two sides having been in action less than 48 hours earlier, Quique Sanchez Flores and Mauricio Pochettino both elected to rest their full-backs. For the home side, José Holebas was replaced by Aké on the left with Ikechi Anya coming in for Allan Nyom on the opposite side. Tottenham’s Kieran Tripper took the place of Kyle Walker on Spurs’ right and Danny Rose returned from illness to replace Ben Davies.
Spurs midfielder Tom Carroll, born within a goalkeeper’s punt of Vicarage Road, started only his second Premier League match of the season after coming off the bench to score against Norwich on Boxing Day. There was no place, however, on that bench for Andros Townsend, the winger heavily linked with a winter transfer to Watford.
Capoue, playing against his former club, was tasked with keeping the Tottenham triumvirate of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Lamela quiet, but fired a couple of shots wide at the other end early on, much to the delight of the travelling fans who serenaded the Frenchman with “That’s why we sold you”.
Pochettino showed Sanchez Flores’s side the respect recent performances have deserved by playing with Eric Dier dropping in as a third centre-half to combat Ighalo and Troy Deeney. Yet it was the visitors who opened the scoring in the 17th minute.
Watford had kept six clean sheets in their previous nine league games at home, but when Craig Cathcart was dispossessed by Alli 35 yards from goal, the ball ran into the path of Lamela, who held off Miguel Britos and slotted calmly past Heurelho Gomes, the Brazilian goalkeeper who joined the Hornets from Spurs in 2014.
Moments later Lamela had a chance to double his side’s lead, but sliced wide after good work from Kane down the left channel. Watford regrouped and enjoyed a fair share of possession despite failing to seriously threaten the Spurs’ goal. However, shortly before half-time, a Deeney knock-down was held up well in front of goal by Ighalo, who squeezed the ball fortuitously through Dier’s legs before toeing it under the diving Hugo Lloris.
When Spurs lost the ever-imposing Mousa Dembele to injury and Sanchez Flores introduced Valon Behrami for Almen Abdi it looked like the pendulum might be about to swing in the hosts’ favour, but when Aké was shown a straight red for a high foot on Lamela in the 63rd minute, Spurs upped their tempo. The angry Horns fans responded with chants of “You’ve only got 12 men”.
Spurs, undefeated away from home since the opening day of the season, took control of the game, but struggled to break down a solid Watford backline, while remaining wary of a swift counterattack as Sanchez-Flores left Ighalo alone up top. As the final whistle approached, it was the home side who looked more dangerous with a number of high balls lumped into a congested Tottenham area. Ben Watson had an inswinging corner cleared off the line.
Spurs though then implemented a counter of their own; Keiran Trippier’s low cross being back-heeled by Son through the legs of Gomes to break the Hornets’ hearts.