Watford‘s hopes of surviving relegation were hit by a 4-0 defeat to Manchester City in the Premier League on Tuesday evening.
The Hornets worked hard while conceding a huge volume of possession to City in the early stages, and might have been buoyed by a lack of chances initially.
But minimal City’s constant pressure saw Kyle Walker’s pass find Raheem Sterling free inside the box and the forward simply smashed home into the top corner on the half-hour mark.
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Sterling then won a penalty and took it himself – saved, but the rebound netted – before his second-half shot was tapped in by Phil Foden and Aymeric Laporte headed a quick fourth, as Watford began to collapse.
Here are five things we learned from the match at Vicarage Road.
No rocking the boat, no change in outcome
With Nigel Pearson sacked ahead of Watford’s final two matches, the board appear to be banking on that fabled new-manager bounce to shake the team up and earn them the point or three needed to stay up.
If that was the plan, it perhaps didn’t filter through to Hayden Mullins and Graham Stack, as they mostly fielded the same lineup and certainly took the same tactical approach.
It was the natural choice to make, given the limited preparation time, but in turn it meant that Watford couldn’t expect much different of an outcome.
Watford tried to be defensive, but were cut open. They tried to counter, but had no out-ball. Ben Foster in particular tried to keep the goals out, but City simply kept coming and Watford had no answer.
Sterling’s late surge
It’s usually seen as an excellent feat of goalscoring to hit 35 in all competitions, and particularly great to reach 30—yet Sterling seems to have hit one and approached the other milestone almost without comment.
In fact, where there has been comment, it has been over his perceived lack of goals in early 2020, with no goals between 29 December and 17 June—a total of seven league appearances, by the way.
It’s now 19 in the league and 29 in all competitions for the No7, who has proven a clinical and relentless threat in the final third.
His penalty wasn’t the greatest, but his opening strike of the night was an absolute belter into the far corner, leaving him on the fringes of the Golden Boot race, albeit a little too late to really get involved.
Netting that final chance which led to Foden’s goal might have helped, though!
Champions League preparations
This was three points for City, but very little more in terms of preparing themselves for the resumption of the Champions League, which is now their only remaining objective.
Pep Guardiola might just be a little concerned that, despite some victories, his team aren’t playing with an enormous speed and intensity all the time: this 90 minutes was more of an unstoppable glacier, taking down anything in its path with repetition and relentlessness, rather than a tornado which destroyed the opposition with verve and daring.
That’s more what will be required if they are to progress past Real Madrid and other European challengers next month.
Can City step it up when the real challenge arrives? They did against Liverpool, who themselves had already won the title, but couldn’t against Arsenal when both teams had a final to play for.
Much talk has been over David Silva’s impending departure and Foden getting more game time because of it.
But in truth, Foden has mostly been used in the attacking line: a replacement for Leroy Sane, far more than Silva, who is in turn seeing his position filled by Bernardo Silva in central areas, where the Portuguese man previously flitted between the middle of the park and wide on the right.
Either way, City have been seamless in bringing Foden in with more regularity since lockdown and his frequent appearances on the scoresheet will only serve to boost his confidence, as well as his reputation.
Playing either side of that front line with the freedom to dip in and out seems to suit the youngster right now; whether he drops deeper eventually or not remains to be seen, but minutes on the pitch and showing he has consistency, as well as quality, remains the priority.
Relegation fears remain
Watford didn’t simply lose the game, they lost their edge on goal difference over the two teams below them.
A four-goal defeat put them level in that regard with Bournemouth and Aston Villa and indeed having scored fewer than either.
It’s over to Aston Villa now and their own Tuesday night game against Arsenal; a win for Villa means Watford will head into the last game inside the bottom three.
The final day will prove to be a stressful occasion for all, with Watford then also facing the Gunners as Bournemouth play Everton and Villa head to West Ham.
Everything still to play for, but this was a particularly damaging defeat.
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