Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 September 2020

Four-star Manchester City push Watford closer to relegation

Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Aymeric Laporte find the back of the net at Vicarage Road.

Watford may have changed their manager four times this season, but they cannot change the storyline. Hayden Mullins, who replaced the sacked Nigel Pearson for the final two matches of a wretched Premier League campaign, must now go to Arsenal for the last one with the threat of relegation very real indeed, and with his players’ confidence further sapped.

The scale of the 4-0 defeat by Manchester City means Watford’s goal-difference advantage over Bournemouth, who could still catch them, has been eroded. As for morale, Mullins saw Watford utterly overwhelmed. Their goalkeeper Ben Foster, beaten four times and tested far more than that, was their outstanding player.

For City, two goals from Raheem Sterling, and one each from Phil Foden and Aymeric Laporte shrugged off Saturday’s FA Cup disappointment.

There is no good time to be sacked as a manager, even at a club where the tenures are notoriously brief. But Pearson might be thankful that his departure was timed to spare him a meeting with City.

His immediate predecessor, Quique Sanchez Flores, took Watford to City in September and lost 8-0; Javi Gracia, who began this season as Watford’s head coach, took on City at Wembley last May and lost a Cup final 6-0. Before Gracia there was Marco Silva, and a 6-0 home walloping by City. Before Silva, Walter Mazzari lost the job after a 5-0 City win at Vicarage Road.

For Mullins, more of the same, although, having reached the first cooling break at 0-0, he might have dared feel luck was smiling on him. City had dominated from kick-off, Rodri testing Ben Foster’s reflexes with a drive that skewed off the back of Gabriel Jesus.

Foster adjusted brilliantly to tip it over. Foden stabbed an effort wide after Joao Cancelo had taken a zig-zag run deep into the vulnerable Watford penalty area.

City, with nothing at stake in terms of improving or losing their second place, took just over half an hour to inflict the pain. A loose ball, picked up by Kyle Walker, was thumped back into the Watford box, and purposefully intercepted by Sterling. A touch with his left foot to control, then a rifled volley with his right put Sterling back on his golden run of post-Restart form.

It was Sterling’s 28th goal across competitions this season, a tally all the more remarkable in that, between the new year and the shutdown in March, he scored none.

Like a man making up for lost time, he had his 29th less than 10 minutes later. Unbalancing his markers with a feint, Sterling was tripped by Will Hughes, who seemed to have made contact with the ball before the man, and a penalty awarded.

Sterling took the spot-kick, Foster saved but his firm hand on the ball merely turned it back to the penalty-taker. Sterling had a straightforward task to score.

Poor Foster. Watford’s goalkeeper carries little blame for their predicament. He has been heroic at times this season. He would be again as soon as the second half was under way.

Watford’s carelessness in possession invited Jesus to advance on Foster, the keeper standing firm. Moments later, after Adrian Mariappa had blocked a Bernardo Silva effort apparently using an arm, Foster brilliantly turned a Sterling drive away for a corner.

On the hour, he kept out a vicious free-kick from Kevin de Bruyne. He then flicked out a right arm to deny Sterling but the ricochet from that save fell, inevitably, to City, Foden the beneficiary.

Scarcely could Foster and Watford catch their breath than Laporte met De Bruyne’s centre for the fourth. If Watford go down, City will miss them. They have become their favourite, most reliably thrashable punchbags.

Updated: July 21, 2020 11:16 PM

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