With a quarter of their rather mundane season left, Manchester United stand on the brink of unexpected achievement. If they show any kind of consistency, appetite or gumption over the next couple of months then a place in the Champions League could be theirs.
United have not looked like a Champions League team for much of this campaign. Even their better moments have been so fleeting as to disappear from memory almost immediately.
But now, a combination of a successive victories and the enduring frailties of others, have left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team standing squarely in front of unexpected opportunity and it would appear the next four games may go a long way to telling us whether they really are capable.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Lindelof 6, Maguire 6, Shaw 6; Matic 6, Fred 6 (McTominay 78mins); Greenwood 7 (Chong 78mins 6), Fernandes 7.5, James 8; Martial 6.5 (Ighalo 78mins 6). Not used: Romero, Bailly, Mata, Williams.
Goals: Fernandes pen 40, Martial 59, Greenwood 74
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 6.5
Watford (4-2-3-1): Foster 5.5; Dawson 5.5, Kabasele 6, Cathcart 6; Masina 6; Hughes 6, Capoue 6; Pereyra 5.5 (Sarr 68mins) 6, Doucoure 6.5, Deulofeu 6; Deeney 6 (Welbeck 75mins 6). Not used: Gomes, Mariappa, Cleverley, Chalobah, Gray.
Manager: Nigel Pearson 6
Referee: Martin Atkinson 56
Man of the match: Daniel James
Attendance: 73, 347
A win at Chelsea last Monday followed by a performance here that grew better the longer it went on have left United in fifth, just three points off what is admittedly a rather slovenly pace. Up next are games against Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham and Sheffield United. Four games to make or break a season? It pretty much looks that way.
Here, Solskjaer’s team were slow to start but finished rather well. He will hope it is a metaphor for the season. This is a United team more suited to playing on the counter attack – new signing Bruno Fernandes has certainly helped with that – and once they had the lead against a Watford side that was competitive for an hour, they grew in confidence and looked genuinely dangerous.
It was Fernandes who gave United the lead after Ben Foster had brought him down to concede a penalty in the 40th minute. Then, after what looked like a Watford equaliser was ruled out on the say-so of VAR early in the second half, United stretched their advantage through Anthony Martial and young Mason Greenwood.
The second half goals were easy on the eye as was the sight of Fernandes and man of the match Daniel James running directly and regularly at the Watford defence from deep positions. United look dangerous when they attack like that – turning worried defenders on their heels – and it is something Solskjaer must try and harness between now and May.
Conversely, it is unusual these days for United to start a game well. Solskjaer’s team tend to be slow out of the traps. That was how it was here. On a blustery day, they played with no particular intensity or tempo early on and that, among other things, allowed Watford to settle and play their part.
Indeed, the first chance fell to the visiting team. Nemanja Matic and Harry Maguire got in a tangle just outside their own penalty are and when the ball broke, Troy Deeney looked as though he may get a shot off. He would have done, too, had Luke Shaw not read the situation so well and scampered across from left-back to block.
That should have served as a warning to United. Watford do not play like a bottom three side under Nigel Pearson and had clearly come to Old Trafford to engage.
Young Greenwood did register an early shot for United but it was from distance and straight at Foster. At the other end, a low cross from the dangerous Gerard Deulofeu found Abdoulaye Doucoure in a dangerous position but he could not find room to get a shot away and ended up running the ball over the dead ball line as he sought an angle.
Neither team had adjusted to the conditions terribly well and that was not surprising. United, in the absence of the injured Marcus Rashford, lacked a focal point up front.
Fernandes – always looking to find a pocket of space in the final third – fed James on the left in the 17th minute. The Welsh winger’s curled shot towards the far post didn’t look that dangerous but when Foster pushed it out straight to Aaron Wan-Bissaka the United full-back may have done better than drive the rebound wide of the near post.
Roberto Pereyra was only just wide with a decent shot midway through the half and then Shaw, for United, worked Foster routinely with a low drive from 25 yards.
For a while, that was the way of it as both teams felt each other out a little bit. Over time, though, United did slowly take the initiative. Too many of Watford’s forays broke down 30 yards from goal – much to Pearson’s clear frustration – and although Doucoure brought a save from David de Gea with a rasping left-footer on the half hour mark, it was no great surprise that United eventually managed to squeeze in to the lead.
Space was the key. United were beginning to find it in the attacking areas of the field. Fred should have done more than side foot a shot wide after a Fernandes-James combination found him in the 38th minute and, after that, Fernandes took matters in to his own hands.
The pass through the middle from James was a good one and Fernandes reached the ball well before Foster who brought him down. Fernandes waited for Foster to commit himself to the right before placing the penalty calmly in to the opposite corner. Five minutes before half-time, United were ahead and it was reward for what had been steady if unspectacular improvement.
It felt like a big moment in a game that never felt as though it would have many goals in it. As it happened, the most significant passage of play arrived early in the second half as Watford had a goal ruled out and then, six minutes later, United went further ahead.
Watford started the second half strongly, as if instructed by Pearson to try and take hold of the game. And when James was caught in possession by Will Hughes on the edge of his own area, Doucoure was able to drive in a low cross that Shaw was forced to clear behind for a corner.
When the ball arrived at the near post, two United defenders missed it and Craig Dawson bundled it against the post, allowing Deeney to poke in the rebound. It seemed a fair goal but as Watford celebrated the VAR officials got to work and replays showed that Dawson’s use of the upper arm to divert the ball goalwards was clear.
So, reprieved and no doubt relieved, United sought to take advantage and did so soon after. James and Greenwood had already combined neatly down the left to cause trouble when Fernandes sent Martial through the same channel in the 59th minute. Foster saved the Frenchman’s first shot with his leg but when Martial regained possession, he was able to turn too easily and lift the ball over the Watford goalkeeper and in to a goal that by then should really have been protected by a defender on the line.
Able to relax a little and with Watford now chasing the game, United started to play freely. Foster saved again with his from Martial – this time the attack coming down the right – and then Maguire was off target with a header from a free-kick.
Soon after, they sealed the game and it was a lovely goal. Hughes lost the ball in midfield and when Fernandes broke and fed Greenwood, the young forward was able to ease inside on his left foot and beat Foster high to the goalkeeper’s right.