That was just plain cruel. Little by little, as the song goes by a famous Manchester band, Watford looked to be edging ever closer to being mathematically assured of a second straight season of Premier League football when Juan Mata broke their hearts with a sumptuous free-kick. It was a bigger kick in the teeth than the ones Everton, United, Manchester City and Tottenham had already administered this season.
This team should have become only the fourth in the club’s history to head south from this famous citadel with anything other than a defeat. If anything they should really have been celebrating their first ever league win here – let alone wonder how they didn’t grab at least a point. Their performance for the first hour deserved it and even the most one-eyed United fans could have not begrudged them it. It would have been quite the fitting way to reach the magical 40-point mark. Yet it was not to be. It was Louis Van Gaal who theatrically fell to the floor on Sunday but it is Quique Sanchez Flores who will have a job picking up his troops off the canvas after this one.
Yet if you don’t take your chances you pay the ultimate price at this exalted level. And Watford have not been great at taking theirs of late; this was the sixth time in the last eight league matches they have fired a blank.
Odion Ighalo has aspirations of playing here one day yet the United fans were grateful he left his shooting boots in the overhead locker on the chartered flight to Manchester. He missed two golden chances, should have squared another to Troy Deeney or Etienne Capoue and was presented with two other half chances all before he was replaced by Nordin Amrabat. Sebastian Prodl, of all people, will also wonder how United kept out his header in the second half and will feel he should have scored at the far post from another inswinger.
Mata was not so wasteful and he beat the helpless Heurelho Gomes with a quite brilliant free-kick. It will pain the away fans to say it but it was a goal fit to win any game. Just not this one.
Watford were comfortably the more progressive side in the first half and played with a tempo and intensity sadly lacking against Bournemouth. As Sanchez Flores said they would, Watford relished playing on the big stage and soaked up the rich Old Trafford experience.
How they were not in front at the break, by at least two, was a complete mystery. Ighalo had four chances he would have gobbled pre Christmas. He had one deflected wide after 13 minutes and then Sanchez Flores turned away in disbelief at the one he dragged another wide before the half-hour mark.
The most glaring, however, came five minutes before half time when he muscled and sped his way through the heart of the United defence. He only needed to square the ball for the infinitely better placed Deeney and Capoue but selfishly chose to shoot. Even the considerable Watford presence in the directors’ box threw their arms up in disbelief. Deeney would have been well within his rights to give him a volley at half time.
Ighalo closed the half by baring down on David De Gea after pouncing on a sloppy defensive play by Valera and Danny Blind, but a combination of some clever goalkeeping and indecision saw the chance wasted. It was a shame as Watford were as tactically smart and as fluid as they have been in weeks if not months.
Deeney was top class in the first half and it was a shame Roy Hodgson was at the Bournemouth game and not this one. He showed Fosu-Mensah what football at this level is all about by fairly shoving him over but also showed some delightful subtle touches, including one neat flick to Ighalo from a Nyom pass and another dextrous touch to Capoue.
“Is this a library?” chorused the vocal away fans. No, but Watford certainly silenced the vast majority inside Old Trafford during an excellent first-half performance.
Full of energy, Watford carried on in the second where they left off the first. The vastly-improved Capoue fizzed a piledriver over the bar, Prodl thought he had scored with a near-post header from a Watson corner and then Ighalo just failed to get enough curl on a left-footed effort to get it to land inside the far post. The United fans were becoming increasingly restless.
The only thing they had to shout about was a fierce left-footed strike from Mata that was too hot to handle for Gomes. The Spaniard had Gomes scrambling again minutes later with an effort that curled past the far post from left to right.
With Rashford becoming an increasing influence, Sanchez Flores moved to take the sting out of United’s best spell of the match by bringing on Mario Suarez for Abdi. Yet it was Suarez’s former Spain youth international teammate who made the difference tonight after 83 minutes, curling in a free-kick from the edge of the box past the dive of Gomes. Old Trafford erupted. The Watford players sunk to the floor.
“Elton John’s Taylor-made army,” nostalgically sang the away fans at the end. The biggest compliment you could pay the team tonight was that this was the type of class and resource defying performance that became the norm under that reign. It was just a crying shame it didn’t end in at least a point.
Watford: Gomes; Nyom, Britos, Prödl, Holebas; Capoue, Watson, Behrami (Anya 86); Abdi (Suarez 71), Deeney (c); Ighalo (Amrabat 73) .
Manchester United: De Gea; Varela, Blind, Fosu-Mensah, Rojo (Darmian 71); Schneiderlin, Herrera; Martial, Mata (c) (McNair 89), Memphis; Rashford
Referee: Michael Jones