Watford moved up to third in the Sky Bet Championship after a clinical attacking display, where Blackburn Rovers paid the price for missed opportunities at Vicarage Road.
Story of the match
Having tasted defeat just once this season, the Hornets welcomed Blackburn Rovers to Vicarage Road with an automatic promotion place only three points away.
After the Hornets left it late to beat Derby County under the lights of Pride Park last Friday, Vladimir Ivić made three changes, with Craig Cathcart, James Garner and Ismaïla Sarr coming in to the side, as Jeremy Ngakia, William Troost-Ekong and Domingos Quina fell to the bench. There was also a welcome return to Etienne Capoue in the matchday squad after a move to Valencia failed to materialise during the summer transfer window.
Blackburn Rovers travelled south just three points behind the hosts. A surprise last-minute defeat at home to Nottingham Forest on Saturday following a three-game unbeaten streak that included three clean-sheets and nine goals scored.
Looking to bounce back from Saturday’s defeat with a win, Rovers manager, Tony Mowbray made two changes to the starting line-up, with Harvey Elliot and Lewis Holtby coming in for John Buckley and Tyrhys Dolan.
For the opening ten minutes, there will little to separate the two sides. The visitors had started slightly the strong but the game sprung into life in the 12th minute as Ben Foster was forced into a flailing save.
Adam Armstrong found himself in space on the edge of the Watford box and almost couldn’t believe his luck. After quickly sorting out his feet, he took aim for the top right corner but Foster was equal to the strike and palmed the ball away.
Armstrong was left ruing the missed opportunity less than a minute later as Watford took the lead.
Quick one-touch interplay between Sarr and Garner enabled Kiko Femenia to overlap and find Joao Pedro on the penalty spot. Firing low to the bottom right of Thomas Kaminski, the Rovers goalkeeper was helpless as the first time effort settled in the bottom corner. It was a clinical attack from the Hornets.
Four minutes later and Watford had extended their lead.
Garner flouted the ball over the Blackburn defence to an onrushing Sarr. Taking two touches the bring the ball down in his stride, Sarr unleashed a rasping effort with his third that drew a diving save from Kaminski, the ball, however, fell to Tom Cleverley eight yards out, who made no mistake for Watford’s second.
The goals only served to galvanise the visitors.
Christian Kabasele was fortunate to escape a red card in the 21st minute as he brought down Armstrong as the last man but only received a yellow, much to Mowbray’s dismay.
Mowbray was not complaining seven minutes later as Blackburn Rovers found a foothold in the game.
After two spectacular saves from Foster, first from the head of Darragh Lenihan and then Daniel Ayala, Rovers might have thought that tonight wasn’t going to be their night in front of goal but Ben Brereton had other ideas.
Bringing an aerial ball down on his chest, Brereton chose to try his luck with an ambitious volley from 25 yards. It caught Foster off guard and the Watford goalkeeper could only palm the ball into his bottom corner.
Instead of backing off, Watford stood up to the challenge and should have had a third on the half hour mark.
Exploiting the speed of Sarr, Nathaniel Chalobah played a through-ball for the Senegalese striker. Taking a couple of touches to get beyond the Blackburn defence and into the box, Sarr picked out Pedro at the far post. Unfortunately the ball was a little too far ahead for the young Brazilian, who diverted the ball agonisingly wide from two yards out.
It was a frantic opening to the game and the chances kept on coming for both sides.
In the 41st minute, Corry Evans had a shot deflected into the path of Armstrong who fired over from just inside the box.
The second half started in similar fashion as Watford pushed further ahead thanks to an own goal from Lenihan.
In the 49th minute, Ken Sema found space on the left and time to fire in a powerful, low cross into the six-yard box. Lenihan came across his man at the front post and sliced the ball delightfully passed a helpful Kaminski for Watford’s third. It was the first time the Hornets have scored three since beating Liverpool back in February.
Blackburn were still not deterred.
In the 56th minute, Lenihan tried to make amends as he struck a volley on the edge of the box that forced a scrambling Foster into a low diving save.
Six minutes later and Rovers were ruing another missed opportunity as Armstrong ran on to a through ball and tried to lob the onrushing Foster on the edge of the box. Foster stood tall enough and managed to tip the ball agonisingly over the bar.
Watford came forth once more through Sarr.
Springing the offside trap, Sarr picked up the ball on the corner flag and seemed to have all the time in the world to find Pedro on the penalty spot. Moving on to the ball, Pedro snatched at the cross and scuffed it wide.
The game continued to go end-to-end and only three minutes later Blackburn Rovers had a penalty.
A lumbering Cathcart brought down Holtby as he rushed back and Armstrong stepped up from the spot to offer the visitors a lifeline. Striking the ball cleanly to Foster’s left, the Watford stopper was equal to it and did brilliantly to palm the ball away at full stretch.
In the 77th minute, Watford should have put the game to bed.
Midway into the Rovers’ half, a smart back heel from Pedro sent Garner through the middle of the opposition’s defence. Drawing three defenders, Garner laid the ball on to Sarr, 8 yards out with only the goalkeeper to beat. With the goal gaping, Sarr somehow managed to find the flailing Kaminski, who - more through hope than skill - deflected the ball over the bar.
Whilst Watford had to withstand late pressure from Blackburn late on, the Hornets held on for a hard-fought win that lifted them into third in the league after their third win in four.
Takeaways from the match
There is no ‘I’ in team - but there is in Ismaïla
Whilst Sarr was only making his third Sky Bet Championship appearance of the season, the Senegalese speedster has taken to the league like a duck to water.
His wrap sheet may show a blank in the goals column, but Sarr is enjoying the freedom of the opposition’s final third. Sarr hasn’t played against a defender that can keep up with his pace so far this season and there may not be anyone other than Virgil Van Dijk that can in England football.
And much like when Sarr tore apart the Liverpool defence back in February of this year, Sarr was again a handful for the Blackburn defence.
Tonight, Mowbray had no plan for Sarr. Every time Chalobah, Cleverley and Garner received the ball, their first thought was Sarr, and their second was how to play a ball into space for him to run on to.
Sarr often drew two defenders, in turn leaving space for Pedro and the attacking midfielders, such as Cleverley, to move into.
A bright future for both sides
Whilst Watford were conceding their second goal of the season, Blackburn Rovers were scoring their 12th.
These were two very different sides, set up for different purposes.
As Mowbray described it after the game, Blackburn took a "risk or reward" approach as Rovers sought to play to their strengths and create an open game. With over 65% of possession, they manufactured almost 20 shots, of which 7 were on target. On another day, Armstrong could have had a hat-trick and Rovers the three points.
In comparison, the more patient, conservative Hornets tried to pick their moments and did so to full effect. With just four strikes on target, Watford were clinical in attack and resolute in defence.
Ivic wants a smart and composed team style, not a frantic display of individuals. He got exactly what he asked for. Watford had glimpses of individual brilliance but this was a team performance, founded on Ivic’s brand of disciplined and organised football that is built from the back.
On tonight’s display, both clubs have a bright and exciting future ahead.
In a game of plentiful goals and chances, it seems wrong to highlight the winning team’s goalkeeper but Ben Foster deserves the accolades.
Minor error for Blackburn’s goal aside, Foster was faultless.
Sharp off his line to dispel danger from corners and through-balls, Foster had a golden evening with his gloves.
Saving athletically from point-blank headers by Lenihan and Ayala, denying Armstrong on multiple occasions and the penalty save, Foster was ultimately the difference in a thrilling game of football.
After the game, Ivic was in a reflective mood,
“We can be satisfied with the three goals, they worked hard, we had one very good keeper today who saved three or four and the penalty and he gave us confidence in the key points of the game. He gave us extra motivation to win the game.
We know where we are and we know we need to improve our game and possession as we know we didn’t do. It’s important to win the game but we learned today. We are starting to learn how to win games.”
This should be music to the ears of Watford fans with Watford already near the top of the league and still with room for improvement.
The sky is the limit for this Hornets side.