This contest is gaining a reputation for magical goals. Troy Deeney’s strike in the play-off semi-final three years ago will forever live in the memory but Riyad Mahrez sumptuous winner tonight may carry even more significance. It should go a long way to delivering Leicester City the Premier League title.
Mahrez’s second-half strike was enough to take the Foxes five points clear at the top of the table and send Watford spinning to a second 1-0 defeat in three days. Quique Sanchez Flores must be wondering when this crucial win to take Watford over the 40 point barrier is going to arrive. In fact, forget three points, a goal, any goal, will do right now.
The Hornets were gutsy and competitive as we’ve come to expect under Sanchez Flores, but struggled to create clear-cut chances. Once Mahrez found the top corner on 56 minutes there was only one winner. It was the knockout blow and a goal to win any game.
Sanchez Flores had to deal with the disruption of losing Miguel Britos to a hamstring injury in the warm up. The Spaniard called upon Jose Holebas to fill in at left back while Nathan Ake moved out of his comfort zone and into central defence. Even though the young Dutchman has experience playing there at youth level with Chelsea, nothing could prepare him for the challenge of marking the Premier League’s deadly duo, Jamie Vardy and Mahrez. He did well.
Ake had to put fires out from all angles from the first whistle, not least when Heurelho Gomes was caught in no-man’s land, much like he was for the penalty at the King Power. Ake was on hand to usher Vardy away from the empty net and keep the Hornets level. When Christian Fuchs’ drilled effort was parried into play by Gomes, Ake was on hand again to make a last-ditch clearance under the nose of the onrushing Shinji Okazaki.
Ake then almost grabbed the headlines at the other end, rising like an imposing centre-back to head against the crossbar from a dangerous Ben Watson cross. Kaspar Schmeichel was beaten all ends up. But every time Watford got a hold on proceedings they were always just a long ball to Vardy away from going behind. The England international’s audacious volley from the edge of the area would have been a contender for goal of the season if it hit the back of the net. Both sides had decent opportunities to take the lead before the break. Vardy couldn’t direct his close-range effort past Gomes while Troy Deeney’s deflected effort fell comfortably into the arms of Schmeichel. After struggling to keep up with the visitors for much of the opening period, the Hornets finished the half on top.
Then, after the break and following a tactical switch by Ranieri, a moment of brilliance turned the game on its head. A swing of Mahrez’s wand of a left foot put the Hornets back in their place. The Algerian’s strike from 20 yards out was pinpoint and there was nothing Gomes could do about it, although Holebas could not deflect his clearance header away from goal.
And just like that Leicester were in the driving seat. Robert Huth and Wes Morgan were both denied from close range soon after as Leicester looked like doubling their lead. The Hornets continued to press but their inability to carve out any clear-cut chances will be a concern to Sanchez Flores. Leicester, on the other hand, looked like a constant threat. Huth lost his marker again at another set piece and was inches away from cushioning his header back across Gomes into the bottom corner of the net.
When all looked as if it was lost for the Hornets, Ighalo was given an open invitation to level the contest but his tame header from six yards didn’t trouble Schmeichel. Just when will the ball star falling for him again? Perhaps in the FA Cup, a competition that may, just may, help improve a miserable run of seven blanks in nine league games.
Watford: Gomes, Nyom (Anya 81), Britos, Prodl, Ake, Suarez (Abdi 64), Watson, Capoue (Oulare 88), Amrabat, Deeney, Ighalo. Subs not used: Pantilimon, Behrami, Guedioura, Paredes.
Leicester City : Schmeichel, Fuchs, Huth, Morgan, Simpson, Albrighton (Schlupp 45), Kante, Drinkwater, Mahrez (Amartey 85), Vardy, Okazaki (King 45). Subs not used: Schwarzer, Gray, Ulloa, Wasilewski.
Attendance: 20,884 (2,153 Leicester