Watford headed north earlier this week high on optimism and amid talk of a push for the European spots. They head back this evening with their tail firmly between their legs, having failed to add to their goal tally, let alone points tally, and with two more additions, albeit contrasting ones, to their injury list. They’ve lost four of the last five, including this one against this morning’s bottom club, and face Crystal Palace on Boxing Day needing to stop a mini rot.
With Watford missing chief playmaker Roberto Pereyra, a return to the scene of a hard-fought 1-0 win on Wearside a year ago had all the hallmarks of another tightly contested affair. After all, Sunderland needed a positive result to ensure they avoided spending another Christmas at the foot of the Premier League. The visitors, meanwhile, had loftier aims as they sought to return to the top 10 but this would prove to a frustrating reminder that there are no easy games in the top flight.
A game that promised to be cagey and unspectacular was nearly set alight thanks to a rasping Nordin Amrabat volley. An early goal proved to be decisive a year ago and Watford very nearly grabbed it in sensational fashion.
It all stemmed from the work of Odion Ighalo who began the game looking like a man with a chip on his shoulder. With a desperately disappointing 2016 nearly behind him, you can see why. Twisting and turning like the Ighalo of old, he bought a cheap corner off Donald Love. What followed was very nearly highlight-reel stuff. Etienne Capoue, so often the heartbeat of Watford’s attacking play, picked out Amrabat on the edge of the box and his fizzing volley brought out the very best of Pickford who tipped it over.
Sunderland carried their greatest threat on the break and Miguel Britos had to be alert to stick with Jermain Defoe and block his drive as the Black Cats’ top marksman turned the Uruguayan and found half a yard.
And it would be Britos who would be left with his head in his hands following a gilt-edged miss up the other end. Watford again had Ighalo to thank for his persistence, wrestling away from the attentions of Jason Denayer to win a soft free-kick on the edge of the area. The ensuing delivery by Jose Holebas was perfectly weighted for Britos who rose highest but he could only divert wide when well placed. Upon closer reflection, however, the header appeared to strike Younes Kaboul on the way through yet it did little to detract from the magnitude of that miss.
Sunderland would go close late in the half as Patrick van Aanholt slipped in and behind but Heurelho Gomes did just enough to turn the effort away from an acute angle.
If the first half was one Watford shaded on balance and one in which Pickford had more to do than Gomes, the roles were certainly reversed in a disappointing second period for the visitors who never got going in truth.
They would find themselves behind just four minutes into the second half, stung on Sunderland’s first real move of note, though it was well taken mind. The impressive Januzaj, who showed flashes as to why David Moyes rated him so highly during his ill-fated spell in charge of Manchester United, set Defoe free with a neat pass and his cross was turned home at the second attempt by van Aanholt.
Only three Sunderland players had found the net in the Premier League this season coming into today and van Aanholt was one of them. Christian Kabasele, who had a frosty introduction in the first half for the injured Sebastian Prodl, could only block the cross as he stumbled to the turf. Sunderland though were in no mood to pass up the invitation as van Aanholt swivelled and finished via the left post. It was a finish a striker would be proud of.
Stunned by that setback, Walter Mazzarri responded by introducing Isaac Success and he would prove to Watford’s brightest spark on a lacklustre afternoon. But before any attempts at a comeback, the Hornets very nearly slipped further behind.
A rampant Sunderland, buoyed by that opener and with a re-energised home crowd behind them, threatened a second. Again it came via the impressive Januzaj as his delicious back-heel was the catalyst for a Victor Anichebe drive that just cleared Gomes’ post.
Sunderland’s success was the product of a high pressing game as Watford could barely get out let alone force Pickford into work. When they did fashion a couple of chances they failed to cash in to sum up a frustrating afternoon for the men in yellow.
Deeney’s eyes would have surely lit up at the prospect of his 100th Watford goal but that wait will continue as he could only head a well-weighted and teasing Amrabat cross wide. The visitors had most of their success down Success’ side as he continued to be their most creative outlet.
But any chance of grabbing anything from this one was extinguished when Pickford, with his first real saves of the second half, twice denied both Janmaat his second Watford goal and then a decent Ighalo strike soon afterwards.
Watford huffed and puffed and would have been fortunate to return home with a point had Holebas’ late free-kick flown in. Robert Madley, at the centre of a storm following his performance against Stoke recently, gifted Watford a fortuitous free-kick having deemed the ball to have struck the arm of Papy Djilobodji. Yet Holebas, so otherwise assured from set-pieces, wasted the opportunity
It mattered little though as Sunderland’s battling performance was enough to move them off the foot of the table and consign Watford to a fourth straight defeat on the road.