Watford cruised to victory thanks to goals from Ken Sema, Nathaniel Chalobah and Andre Gray as the Hornets moved six points clear of Swansea City to cement their place in the automatic promotion places.
Story of the match
Former Birmingham City player and now Head Coach, Lee Bowyer, travelled south to Hertfordshire for his away game in charge of the Blues as their opponents, Watford looked to retain their grip on the final automatic promotion place in the Sky Bet Championship.
With Brentford held to a point at home to Nottingham Forest in the early kick-off, Watford came into the game eyeing a seven point gap to the Bees in fourth. However, Xisco Muñoz was forced into two changes from the side that dominated Rotherham United 4-1 on Tuesday night as Philip Zinckernagel and Ismaila Sarr missed out through injury, joining the likes of Christian Kabasele and Troy Deeney on the Watford sidelines.
Following his side’s first win in six games at home to Reading in midweek, Lee Bowyer named an unchanged side for the trip to Vicarage Road as the Blues looked to create some distance between themselves and the relegation places with what would have been only their second away win since the middle of January.
Birmingham City had not won away at Watford since 2009 and that run of 11 years without a victory looked increasingly likely to continue from the get go.
In just the fourth minute, the high-flying Hornets took the lead.
Isaac Success, making his first start in two years for Watford, linked up with Joao Pedro in midfield. Full of confidence, the young Brazilian ran at the heart of the Blues defence and, finding little resistance, drew a finger tip save from Neil Etheridge which fell to Sema. Six yards out and unchallenged, Sema swept in the loose ball for his sixth goal of the season to open the scoring for the hosts.
Albeit belated, Birmingham City grew into the game and Watford were relieved to see a Harlee Dean header from six yards out loop into the hands of Daniel Bachmann as the visitors demonstrated their aerial threat from long throws and set-pieces.
Watford responded in-kind.
Chasing what looked like a lost cause, Success won an unlikely corner Watford in the 17th minute. Sema fired in the resultant set-piece, which somehow made its way to Adam Masina at the back-post. Seven yards out, Masina looked destined to extend the Hornets lead but couldn’t sort his feet out under pressure from Dean and the ball fell agonisingly wide, with Etheridge well-beaten.
Eight minutes later and Birmingham City were left ruing a golden opportunity to equalise and would have been level were it not for some brilliant last-ditch defending from Watford’s captain, Nathaniel Chalobah.
Dean, a continual threat in the box for the visitors, won a header - not for the first time today - which made its way to Jérémie Bela on the corner of the six-yard box. Striking a fierce volley on goal, Chalobah was the only thing between Bela and an equaliser as the Watford midfielder launched himself in front of the effort to deflect the ball wide to safety.
Watford continue to struggle against the Blues’ aerial ability and Bachman was relieved only a minute later to see a Dean cross fall into his hands as Scott Hogan and Lukas Jutkiewicz were unable to get a meaningful touch within the six yard box.
In attack, Watford looked far more controlled.
In the 32nd minute, Dan Gosling missed a good opportunity for his second goal in Watford colours as his header sailed over the bar from a pin-point Chalobah cross.
Three minutes later, Watford went close once more to extending their lead after clever feet from Pedro won a free-kick on the right edge of the Birmingham City box.
Masina stepped up and fired in a low strike that evaded everyone and nestled in the palms of Etheridge.
Two minutes later and Watford were again wondering how they hadn’t scored as Success played a one-two with Sema. The former, looking for his first goal since October, 2018 showed his rustiness eight yards out as Success couldn’t get the ball out from under his feet and struck an air shot as a golden chance went begging.
As an end-to-end half was brought to a close, Birmingham City had the final and their best chance of the game.
Maxime Colin cut in from the right-hand side and tried his hardest to create space for a shot on his right foot. In the split second that Colin looked to pull the trigger, Masina reacted quickest to the threat and blocked the effort eight yards out, leaving the Hornets with a precious one-goal lead at half-time.
Birmingham City came out of the traps racing in the second half, peppering the Watford box with crosses but it was Watford who created the first chance of the half.
Isaac Success raced clear of the Blues defence and found himself one-on-one with Etheridge. Seemingly overwhelmed by the amount of space and time he had, Success dallied on the ball and Etheridge did well to smother the ball twelve yards out.
Chalobah made no such mistake a minute later.
Dan Gosling curled a corner on into the back-post and on to the head of an on-rushing Chalobah six yards out. With power, Chalobah sent his header across goal and passed a helpless Etheridge for Watford’s second of the game and his third goal of the season.
To their credit, Lee Bowyer’s side didn’t concede defeat.
Birmingham City continued to create chances, with Dean and substitute, Jonathan Leko, having efforts of note but Bachmann and Watford’s defence remained resolute as they fought for the clean-sheet.
As the visitors continued to pour forward in pursuit of a way back into the game, Watford caught the Blues on the counter-attack as the clock struck eighty minutes.
On the pitch for a matter of seconds, Andre Gray’s first touch in a Watford counter-attack took him beyond the Birmingham City defence. His second touch took him into the box and Gray’s third saw him fire low passed Etheridge for Watford’s third of the day and Gray’s fourth of the season in a challenging campaign for the former Burnley striker.
Bar late chances for substitute Jospeh Hungo and another for Gray, the latter goal proved to be the final action of note as Watford sailed to victory, leaving Lee Bowyer’s side languishing just above the relegation zone in 21st.
The Hornets, on the other hand, made it five wins in a row for the first time in six years as the dream of a return to the Premier League moved one step closer to reality.
Takeaways from the match
Filling a Sarr sized gap?
Before kick-off, the main question of Watford was how they would perform without their Senegalese talisman, Ismaïla Sarr. The Hornets answered in style.
With Pedro moving to the right wing in a 4-3-3 alongside the redeemed Isaac Success and electric Ken Sema, Watford had a front three that could threaten any defence in the league.
Watford’s joint top-scorer with nine this season, Sarr was always going to be a miss but Muñoz’s side adapted to the challenge and could have scored five or six if they had been more clinical in front of goal.
With pace, creativity and confidence, Watford have a squad to be envied and are a force to be reckoned with.
Countdown starts now
With just eight games of the Sky Bet Championship remaining, Birmingham City remain precariously close to the relegation zone but Watford are on the brink of a swift return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Six points clear of Swansea City in third ahead of the Swans’ late kick-off, the Hornets sit on 75 points but cannot rest on their laurels.
With games against fellow promotion-challengers Norwich City, Brentford and Swansea City to come, Watford will be looking to secure promotion sooner rather than later, but with performances like this in their arsenal, their return to the Premier League appears inevitable.
The former Chelsea product cannot claim to be prolific in front of goal but he provided a captain’s performance today and was pivotal in front of goal at both ends of the pitch.
With last ditch defensive efforts to protect Watford’s lead, Chalobah showed a determination and aggression that characterised his side’s performance today.
Watford weren’t faultless but they were resilient and Chalobah led from the front. His powerful header secured the three points for the Hornets but it was his attitude that stood out.
After the game, Muñoz was buoyant but reflective,
"I have very good luck with the players, they give 100% for the squad. It was an amazing challenge for us, we can celebrate today but we have 8 more important games...
I'm very happy with Chalo(bah) and everyone. I'm enjoying this situation. we are building good moments... it's important to have team-spirit and everyone to stay together for the team, the club."
Muñoz has been instrumental in Watford's form since arriving in December and whilst it is no surprise the team spirit has been lifted by their promotion push, Watford fans can also feel hopeful about the sides future. With Muñoz at the helm and a togetherness rarely seen at Vicarage Road, Watford are marching forward on and off the pitch.