Watford reignited their hopes of survival thanks to an acrobatic overhead kick from Danny Welbeck that proved the winner in a tense affair against Championship-bound Norwich City.
Story of the match
Watford came into what was arguably the biggest game in their Premier League history needing nothing short of a victory to boost their hopes of survival after only one win in the previous 11 games.
Following one draw and three consecutive defeats since the restart, Nigel Pearson made two changes to the side that lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening, with Adam Masina and Welbeck coming into the starting line-up for Adrian Mariappa and Nathaniel Chalobah.
Norwich arrived in Hertfordshire in more dire circumstances. Winless in six and seven points adrift at the bottom of the league, Daniel Farke made three changes to the side that lost at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, with Teemu Pukki returning to lead a side that had drawn blanks in a league-high 11 away games before today.
The visitors didn’t have long to wait to get on the scoresheet for their first league goal since beating Leicester City in February.
After an early free-kick from Emi Buendía that forced Ben Foster to turn a free-kick around the post, Norwich needed only four minutes to take the lead.
After finding space in the Watford box, Buendía had time to cut inside on to his left foot and flash the ball past a helpless Foster from 12 yards. It was the Argentine's first goal of the season for the Canaries, but it seemed to revitalise the Hornets.
Only six minutes later and the hosts were level. After winning a free-kick 30 yards out on the right of Tim Krul’s goal, Etienne Capoue swung a deep cross into the back post. The ball was met with conviction by Craig Dawson, who managed to sneak the ball into the net from a tight angle for the equaliser.
Momentum went with the Hornets after that.
In the 22nd minute, Ismaila Sarr muscled Jamal Lewis out of the way on the right sideline to drive unaccompanied into the box. Looking for Troy Deeney in the six yard box, Sarr drilled the ball towards the Watford captain but Ben Godfrey recognised the danger and managed to clear the cross from under his crossbar.
In the 33rd minute Watford again went close to taking the lead.
After winning a corner on the right, Will Hughes swung the ball into the six yard box where he found a leaping Welbeck. Coming on to the ball at the front post, the Englishman glanced the ball towards goal but Krul reacted quickly with his feet to deflect the ball wide.
Watford managed to create two further chances before the half-time break as Sarr supplied another aerial cross for Welbeck eight yards out, but again the Watford forward was unable to keep his header down.
In added time, it was Abdoulaye Doucoure’s turn to head over, again from eight yards, this time following a Deeney cross into the box from the right.
After the break, Norwich started the second half strongest.
In the 54th minute Foster was forced into a save as Max Aarons looked to send him the wrong way, but Foster denied Aarons smartly with his feet. The rebound then fell kindly to Buendía but the Argentinian struck high and wide.
The chance revitalised the hosts who went on to take the lead only a minute later.
Sarr, a constant thorn in the side of the Norwich defence, ran into the box, looking for Welbeck to his left. Thanks to a kind deflection, the ball looped into the path of Welbeck. Having to check his run and with his back to goal, the former England forward took the chance early, acrobatically firing the ball into the top-right from 12 yards with an overhead kick.
The Watford sidelines were jubilant as the ball flew into the back of the net and became nearly hysterical in the 74th minute as Watford nearly scored a third.
After Sarr was brought down on the edge of the box, substitute Tom Cleverley, brought on for Hughes, saw his free-kick rebound out to Masina, 20 yards out. With time, Masina dreamt of the spectacular but couldn’t keep his strike down as the ball sailed over the crossbar.
With five minutes to go, Norwich thought they had snatched a late draw.
Lewis made a rare venture into the Watford half and crossed into Josip Drmic who flicked the ball on to Adam Idah. Fortunately for the hosts, Idah was off balance and was unable to steer his effort on target from just three yards out.
As the game headed into four added minutes to the 90, the tempo turned frantic as Norwich grew desperate in their search of an equaliser.
Tackles were flying in from both sides but Watford stayed professional and resolute, holding on for a vital win to create some breathing space at the bottom of the league, moving four points clear of the relegation places and all but confirming Norwich’s relegation from the league.
Takeaways from the match
Welbeck provides the Hornet sting
Starting only his second game since the injury at Tottenham Hotspur in October, Welbeck displayed the brilliance that brought 42 caps for England with his first Premier league goal since August 2018.
Welbeck has had his fair share of bad luck. At 29 years of age, he has suffered a broken ankle, hip injuries, knee surgery and multiple muscle strains.
Critics argue that injuries have prevented him from fulfilling his potential and brought his Arsenal and England career to a premature end but, to his credit, Welbeck has always come back stronger.
Today’s goal saw the forward join Theo Walcott, Jordan Henderson and David Silva as the only players to have scored at least one goal in each of the last ten Premier league seasons.
Welbeck’s Watford highlights have been fleeting and the abiding memory, prior to today, may have been the short cameo away to Tottenham Hotspur. But now, he is on the verge of entering Watford folklore after reigniting their survival hopes.
Welbeck has won two Premier League titles with Manchester United, two FA Cups with Arsenal, and scored 16 goals for England, but if Watford were to survive relegation, Welbeck's goal and role in doing so may be considered one of his finer achievements.
Sarr: more than an attacking threat
Stats are sometimes helpful for painting a picture, but they never tell the whole story. Against Norwich, Sarr’s performance needed to be seen to be believed at times.
In a first half where Sarr managed over 25 touches and two dribbles, it was Sarr’s contest with Lewis that sparked the imagination.
The Senegalese winger attacked Lewis at every opportunity, receiving the ball deep and taking on his left-back counterpart gleefully.
In the 22nd minute and 43rd minute, Sarr flowed past a helpless Lewis to create chances. It would have been enough to lift the fans off their seats if they had been present.
However, it didn’t all go the way of Sarr.
An under-hit pass by Capoue in the 39th minute enabled Lewis to at least win one battle against Sarr, but rather than being disheartened, he was invigorated and for the majority of the 90 minutes, he was almost unplayable in attack.
Sarr also demonstrated his defensive capabilities, linking up with Kiko Femenia and providing cover for the Watford right-back when the Spaniard over-lapped. It demonstrated the winger’s professionalism and that there is more to his game than meets the eye.
After the game, Pearson was full of praise for his side: "I thought we showed a lot of character - not always composure - but the result was always more important than the performance. I feel for Norwich because they played pretty well and we've had to fight very hard. Their ability to keep the ball made it difficult.
"We desperately needed three points and we got it. It's only us who can keep us up, we've got to win enough points. Sometimes clubs are in a position like this because there's not enough care. I know that's not the case here. We're going to do everything we can to stay up."
As Pearson implied in the post-match conference, today’s win was only a step in the right direction for Watford.
The Hornets have Newcastle United and West Ham United in the next two games and with Aston Villa and AFC Bournemouth breathing down the Hornets’ necks, at least one win will be vital to confirm their survival in the Premier League next season.