The "run of death" is over, but things aren't about to get any easier for Watford
Photo by Getty Images/Marc Atkins

You know for certain that England's top flight is effectively multiple leagues condensed into one when a 3-1 defeat feels like a totally respectable result.

Manchester City are on another planet from Watford, let alone in the same metaphorical division, and they proved as much in Saturday evening's dominant victory at Vicarage Road.

The current holders of the Premier League title were simply unstoppable. It wasn't a contest in any sense of the term. The opening 45 minutes in particular was one of the most one-sided halves of football spectators will have witnessed in a long, long while, as Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva scored and an outstanding goalkeeping performance from Daniel Bachmann kept the scoring deceptively low at half-time.

That City are believed to have taken their foot off the gas after the break and still managed to score a beautifully worked third — rounded off by a moment of individual brilliance from man of the match Silva — says all you need to know about how the two teams matched up on the day.

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And then Pep Guardiola brought Kevin de Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez, two players who have won the PFA Player of the Year Award (the former's even claimed it twice), off the bench. Oh, and don't forget Gabriel Jesus, too.

It wasn't really fair.

And yet those with affinity towards Watford found very little to be disheartened about after the match. The result seemed a foregone conclusion, but Hornets were pleased with the endeavour shown by their team against one of the most potent sides ever to grace the English game; pleased to keep the harm done down at three goals and over the moon to have pegged one back through Cucho Hernandez.

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It's an undeniable improvement on Watford's last three meetings with City in all competitions: they were 6-0 in the FA Cup final in 2019, followed by 8-0 and 4-0 in the league meetings in 2019/20. City's winning streak against the Hornets in all competitions has now been extended to 14 matches — with an aggregate score of 53-7 across those — but this felt like one of the most respectable showings in that run.

Was it really so? Or has the positive impact of Claudio Ranieri's instalment as head coach merely permitted the use of rose-tinted glasses on what is, whichever way you look at it, a poor spell of form results-wise?

It's a bit of both. The scoreline clearly doesn't do justice to City's dominance as Watford failed to lay a finger on their opponents, and that wasn't all down to the quality of the opposition. Teams of their stature have managed to cause Guardiola's side problems in the past; Crystal Palace beat them just over a month ago.

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Ranieri stated after the match that he was generally pleased with his side's performance but that doesn't mean there won't have been areas in which he saw both the opportunity and need for significant improvement.

On the other hand, the ease with which the Hornets were brushed aside has not detracted whatsoever from the notion that they are still experiencing positive trajectory under the Italian's stewardship.

After a 5-0 drubbing by Liverpool, the topsy-turvy 5-2 victory at Everton appeared to signal that Watford had found their footing under Ranieri. That wasn't the case; it was merely a freak result determined by 12 extraordinary minutes of capitulation from the Toffees.

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In fact, most of the good work was done over this staggeringly difficult run of fixtures which has now, on the face of it, come to an end.

There were green shoots to be found in the narrow defeat at Arsenal, and these were followed up by epiphany in the sensational victory over Manchester United. The defence let the team down against Leicester City but the overall performance levels remained strong enough and the match with Chelsea just three days later brought another resilient and able display despite defeat.

The encounter with City was — more than anything given Watford's recent record against the current champions — always going to be the hardest of the lot but the Hornets gave it their all and refused to be disheartened, battling right until the end even though their bodies likely wanted to shut down under the strain of competing against such mighty opposition.

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This was the run of death earmarked by Watford fans when the fixture list was released in the summer and now it is, relievedly, a feature of the past. They got three more points out of it than they might previously have budgeted for and that in itself is a major positive; but the principal source of enthusiasm is that performances look a whole lot more competent and competitive than they did under former head coach Xisco Muñoz and in the early weeks of Ranieri's tenure.

However, the notion that matches are about to get any easier is a total and utter illusion.

The next three games in particular — against Brentford, Burnley and Palace — see Watford facing teams in and around them who will be just as desperate to avoid defeat as will they. The Hornets will also have an added burden in the weight of expectation, which has not been a factor in matches against teams they're not necessarily competing with directly in the league.

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And there is the harsh reality that defeat in any of these upcoming encounters would not only deny Watford points, but also amplify the tallies of their survival rivals — each loss in the next handful of games will be a double-whammy and that's not been the case over the last month or so.

If the matches are getting "easier", the pressure is only ramping up.

Both their ability and their mental reserve were given handy dress rehearsals in recent fixtures with the Hornets not expected to win; now it's time for the real show, and any slip-ups on stage can't be tolerated.

The "run of death" served to confirm two widely-held perceptions about this Watford side: firstly, they are certainly heading in the right direction under Ranieri; but secondly, their defence (or, at times, lack thereof) remains a weighty check on their chances of beating the drop this season.

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The Hornets have conceded more goals than any team in the league since Ranieri took over (19 in eight matches) and that has been partly excused by the calibre of the opposition faced. From here on, however, they will have no such means of absolution. If they keep conceding at the same rate (Watford have the third-worst defensive record in the league so far this season, and have now shipped 50 goals since their last Premier League clean sheet, an astonishing 25 matches ago) in the upcoming fixtures, it will spell nothing short of disaster.

Keeping things tight at the back — now that they're not playing against hundred-million-pound superstars — will be integral in determining the fortunes of what will doubtless go down as a season-defining run of games for the Hornets. A clean sheet at Brentford on Friday night, with the Bees missing arch marksman Ivan Toney (Covid) as well as joint-second top scorer Sergi Canos (suspended), would set the tone perfectly.

Watford's grace period — if that's how these "free hits" against some of England's, and Europe's, best teams were treated — has been and gone, and they can't afford to be anything but black and white about the next handful of matches: these results will carry heavy consequences and it's up to the Hornets to dictate whether or not those will be helpful or hindering.

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As Ranieri said in his post-Manchester City press conference, "our Premier League starts now. We have to get some points."