Watford suffered the mother of all FA Cup hangovers this afternoon and there was no aspirin in the world that could help them.
Goals from Jon Walters and a superbly-taken Joselu effort were enough to see off Quique Sanchez Flores’ side, who were unrecognisable from the team that sent shockwaves through English football at the Emirates last weekend. Despite a late revival from the home side, sparked by a Troy Deeney header, Watford were convincingly beaten by a superior team. That 40-point target continues to elude them.
The problem with good cup runs is that league form tends to suffer as a result. Look at Ben Watson’s Wigan in 2013. Of course, Watford’s situation is entirely different but if they don’t improve on today’s performance they are by no means out of the woods. The Hornets have now won only one of their last seven league games, and Norwich City’s win today did them no favours.
With Watford eyeing their elusive 40-point target, Stoke had set their sights on getting back into the mix for European football, and within minutes their intent was clear. Watford went down the tunnel at half-time looking like they’d just finished their first pre-season training session. They were out-fought, out-muscled and out-played by a ruthlessly sharp outfit.
Things may have been different had Odion Ighalo taken his early chance after bursting clear of Phillipp Wollscheid but Jack Butland was equal to his tame effort.
Watford then let the visitors get into gear and after that there was no stopping them. Stoke showed greater tenacity in the midfield battle and looked to find their attacking contingent as much as possible, particularly down the side where Etienne Capoue and Nathan Ake were stationed. Jon Walters was the first to have a clear sight at goal but elected to try and find Joselu when he was well within his rights to have tested Heurelho Gomes.
However, minutes later, the Republic of Ireland international made no such mistake in front of goal. The Potters opened up Watford with some fluid interplay and when Phil Bardsley’s inch-perfect cross found Walters at the back post the forward simply couldn’t miss. Stoke were giving Watford the same type of away masterclass that the Hornets turned in at the Britannia stadium in October. The Hornets were chasing shadows for much of the first half.
When the Hornets did have any sort of chance to put their stamp on the game, they were wasteful. Even when Deeney was presented with a free header ten yards out, the Watford skipper could only head a long way over the bar.
Stoke were untroubled by Watford’s half-hearted attempts to get back into the game and had the ball in the back of the net again before half-time. Phil Bardsley, who benefited by having no winger to track him down the right side throughout, stampeded through the Hornets’ defence and played an identical cross to the back post, this time finding Marko Arnautovic who prodded home. Fortunately for Watford, the offside flag came to their rescue. It was a massive let-off.
Watford seemed to be on the brink until, just before the break, they had a golden opportunity to haul themselves back into the contest. But Jose Manuel Jurado, on his return, showed his lack of sharpness and fired wastefully over the bar. Something had to give.
It didn’t. With no change of shape or personnel, Watford were all but out of it shortly after half-time. A poor kick from Gomes was returned back upfield by Walters into the path of Joselu who audaciously lobbed the Brazilian from the edge of his penalty area. it was a fine goal from Stoke’s point of view, a terrible one from Watford’s.
The Potters almost made it three soon after,wards, carving open the Hornets yet again, but Ibrahim Afellay’s goal-bound effort was brilliantly denied by Gomes. Watford were on the ropes, taking blow after blow while Stoke went for the jugular.
Any faint hope of getting back into the game was dashed when, after being played through by Nordin Amrabat, Ighalo couldn’t get the ball out of his feet to test Butland from ten yards out. It was not the Nigerian’s finest afternoon.
Watford continued to push and, belatedly, they tried everything get themselves going. Then, out of nothing, they jolted into life in the final exchanges. Tricky wing play from substitute Ikechi Anya found Deeney six yards out and the Hornets skipper headed home to score his tenth of the season to set up an unlikely grandstand finish.
Stoke were rattled and arguably could have been reduced to ten men after Marc Muniesa fouled Amrabat when he looked to be through on goal. But the referee waved away all appeals and the Potters held out to secure victory. As for Watford, it is back to the drawing board.
Watford: Gomes, Nyom, Britos, Cathcart, Ake (Anya 76), Suarez, Capoue, Behrami (Guedioura 54), Jurado (Amrabat 54) , Deeney, Ighalo. Subs not used: Pantilimon, Prodl, Abdi, Watson.
Stoke City: Butland, Bardsley, Muniesa, Wollscheid, Cameron, Whelan, Imbula, Arnautovic (Ireland 84), Afellay (Diouf 84), Joselu. Subs not used: Haugaard, Adam, Teixeira, Crouch, Bojan.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Attendance: 20, 759