Seventh heaven for Hornets after Liverpool sting
Watford 3-0 Liverpool
Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30
Just before kick-off at Vicarage Road, just before they played Z Cars, the fans in the Rookery End unveiled their banner: "Here's to you Pozzo family, Watford loves you more than you would know."
Everything that happened afterwards proved why.
Watford produced the best performance of their season, of the Pozzo era, and maybe of a generation.
This was their fourth straight league win, their eighth so far, and against by far the best opposition they have beaten. Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool barely got a foothold in the game all afternoon.
Quique Sánchez Flores's side are now secure in seventh place, four points clear of Liverpool, just one point behind Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
After the final whistle, Sánchez Flores took the applause of the whole stadium, arms around Nathan Ake and the brilliant Odion Ighalo.
The announcer pointed out how close the team is to the Champions League places.
And in a season in which Leicester City are top just shy of the halfway point, why shouldn't Watford think like that? This is a good team, not just a good run.
Certainly, any notions about Watford being the new Queen's Park Rangers, destabilised by their turnover of coaches and players, have been utterly confounded.
The Pozzo family know what they are doing. The decision to bring in Sanchez Flores ahead of Slavisa Jokanovic now looks far-sighted and astute.
From their promoted core and their new batch of imports, he has moulded a powerful team.
This Watford performance was a lesson in unified, industrious, efficient football.
Sanchez Flores plays 4-4-2 and his players run hard enough to make it work. Every 50-50 was won by a player in a yellow shirt. Liverpool barely threatened and could have conceded more.
Watford took the lead after just three minutes and from that point on the result was not in doubt.
Ake burst down the left to win a corner. Ben Watson curled it in, to Adam Bogdan, deputising for the injured Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal. Bogdan, under pressure from the swinging leg of Miguel Britos, dropped the ball and Ake gleefully stabbed it into the net.
It was a goalkeeping mistake - and not the only one made by Liverpool.
Klopp said afterwards that he was more upset by the reaction, or rather the lack of it, than the mistake itself.
Liverpool never looked like they believed they could recover, even with 87 minutes left against a team who were in the Championship last season.
Watford, though, were brimming with belief and positive intent. They were led from the front by Ighalo and Troy Deeney, the best old-fashioned strike pairing in England right now.
Not many teams play with two up these days, but those two work so hard out of possession that Watford never get outnumbered in midfield.
Deeney was relentless, forcing an early mistake from Mamadou Sakho, unsettling him for the rest of the game.
Ighalo does more than his fair share of running, too, but what really stands out, even ahead of their work rate, is the instinctive understanding the two strikers have.
When one comes short, the other goes long and each man can always find the other's run with a pass. That is how the second goal came about after 15 minutes.
Deeney won the ball from Jordan Henderson in midfield and then held off Emre Can, which is not easy to do.
Sensing the movement in front of him, Deeney hooked the ball forward to Ighalo, running outside Martin Skrtel.
Ighalo held off the challenge, but the ball was knocked slightly wide by the defender before the forward struck it precisely into the far bottom corner.
Ighalo should have scored another soon after, but could not connect after Bogdan's punch had deflected his way via Lucas Leiva. In the end, it did not matter.
Watford continued to outrun their stunned opponents. From Miguel Britos to Ake to the imperious Etienne Capoue, they won every loose ball. One tackle from Almen Abdi on Adam Lallana, just before the break, earned a standing ovation from the whole crowd.
Liverpool needed to start the second half strongly and with Divock Origi on, they did at least have presence up front.
Heurelho Gomes had to make an easy save from Origi, and an athletic save from Henderson, but that was as dangerous as Liverpool got.
Philippe Coutinho was not at his sharpest, producing some clever flicks, but little more. Roberto Firmino never looked in sync with his team-mates.
By the time Klopp threw on Christian Benteke and Jordon Ibe, with 16 minutes left, the game was gone.
Happy to sit back and play on the break, Watford were the more dangerous side in the second half.
Liverpool could never live with Ighalo's running. When he put Sakho on the floor and crossed the ball to Jose Manuel Jurado, the little Spaniard nearly squeezed his shot in at the near post.
Jurado tried to return the favour, sliding in Ighalo, who ran through after another Sakho slip.
One-on-one with Bogdan, he should have scored, only for the Hungarian goalkeeper to stick out a strong hand and deny him.
Watford fans might have worried that they had not killed the game, but they need not have.
The team were very well set up, with few gaps between or within their two banks of four.
When the wingers Jurado and Abdi started to tire, Sánchez Flores introduced fresh legs in Valon Behrami and Ikechi Anya.
Behrami is not a natural winger, but he slotted in perfectly, and Watford scored the third, which ended the game. Ighalo passed to Deeney, who sprayed the ball to Behrami out wide. He measured his cross perfectly to Ighalo, charging into the box after an exhausting piece of work, and he headed the ball past Bogdan and in.
It was the second goal that he had deserved for his work, and the third goal that reflected Watford's dominance.
When the players and staff were applauded by the whole ground at the end, it felt like celebrations at the end of a successful season.
In reality, the story of the Pozzo era at Watford is still just beginning.
Independent News Service