After back-to-back wins in the previous two matches, we travelled to Manchester with considerably more confidence about the game than had been the case when we bought the tickets on the day after the defeat to Millwall. There were happy memories of the win at Vicarage Road earlier in the season, but the current United team are on a great run of form and a completely different proposition. We have only ever won once at Old Trafford, that wonderful League Cup tie in 1978, a game that evokes happy memories even for somebody who only listened to the commentary on the radio. I had no expectation of a second victory on this occasion.
I enjoyed delightful company on the train journey as, on the day after her 18th birthday, my niece was making her first visit to Old Trafford. The journey got even better as we bumped into a friend, so she had an extra excuse for a lack of progress on her homework.
On arrival in Manchester, we met up with the North West ‘Orns at their pub of choice where my niece was dissuaded from her request for lemonade so enjoyed her first pre-match pint. The pub has the added interest of being next door to the team hotel. The Watford team coach was parked outside as we arrived and we were able to wave the players off through the windows.
Previous experience of the security at Old Trafford meant that we left the pub a considerable time before kick-off. There is a veritable army on duty outside the away turnstiles. The first phalanx has a cursory look in bags, the second checks tickets and the third does the thorough search of both bags and people, so you need quite some time to get into the ground. Once inside you make your way to seats that have the least leg room of any stadium in the country. I am only 5’6” and I struggle. This is one stadium at which it is more comfortable to stand for the duration of the game.
Team news was that Mazzarri had made just the one change with Britos coming in for Behrami. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Cleverley, Capoue; Niang, Zárate, Holebas; Deeney.
Prior to kick-off they commemorated the 59th anniversary of the Munich disaster. Families of the victims had been invited as guests of the club at the game. They played “Flowers of Manchester” and the players gathered around the centre circle as if to honour a minute’s silence/applause, but there seemed to be a last minute change of plan and they went back to their pre-match huddle.
The home side had a very early chance when a cross flicked off a Watford head and fell to Ibrahimovic, whose shot was dreadful and way off target. Ibrahimovic then played a lovely through ball for Mata, but Gomes came out to make the tackle. Watford’s first chance came on 9 minutes as Niang tried a shot from the edge of the area but it was straight at de Gea in the United goal. Mkhitaryan was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance that was easy for Gomes to gather. At the other end, Zárate fed Niang whose shot flew well over the bar. Martial cut inside and tried a shot from outside the area that deflected off Prödl and went wide. Watford had a terrific chance to open the scoring as Holebas went on a run down the left before unleashing a shot that curled just wide of the far post. At the other end, Pogba unleashed a shot from distance that Gomes pushed wide. From a throw, Zárate tried a spectacular overhead kick, but it was an easy save for de Gea. The first 20 minutes had been fairly even, but then the home side gained the upper hand and it was one way traffic. It started with Ibrahimovic, who looked a mile offside when he received the ball, there was no flag but, thankfully, he shot well over. Then a careless clearance from Prödl went straight to Valencia who battled past Niang before crossing for Pogba whose shot was saved.
There were two further chances just before the half hour. First a cut back from Blind to Herrera who launched a powerful shot over the bar. Then Mata played the ball back to Mkhitaryan who should have done better with his shot which again flew over. The onslaught on the Watford goal continued as Mata crossed from the byline to Ibrahimovic whose close range header was brilliantly stopped by Gomes, the follow-up shot was blocked by Holebas. The breakthrough finally came on 31 minutes as Martial crossed for Mata who finished from close range. It had been coming and I feared that this would open the floodgates but, apart from a shot from Mkhitaryan just before half time that was easy enough for Gomes, that was the end of the goal chances in the first half.
We felt very fortunate to go in at half time only one goal behind, due to a mixture of superb goalkeeping from Gomes and poor finishing from the United players, with Ibrahimovic a particular culprit. What had been particularly annoying from the Hornets was the profligacy with the ball. All the great passing from the Arsenal game had completely disappeared as, too often, they struggled to find a yellow shirt.
At half time, I discovered another interesting quirk of the United security as, despite having spent 45 minutes in the ground, anyone who made their way to the concourse found that they would not be allowed back to their seats unless they produced their ticket. As someone who frequently leaves their coat or bag on the seats, it was a relief that, for once, I had put the ticket in a pocket. What an utterly ridiculous rule.
The home side had the first chance of the second half as Martial went on a run and shot across goal and just wide. Watford had a decent chance for an equalizer as Zárate hit a free kick over the wall that needed a decent save from de Gea to tip it clear. Man Utd’s second goal came on the hour. Capoue was guilty of holding on to the ball for too long, was tackled and the home side launched a quick break that finished with Martial shooting past Gomes. Watford had a chance to strike back as Deeney received a long ball from Prödl and fought off the attentions of Bailly before shooting wide of the near post. At the other end Mkhitaryan found Ibrahimovic whose shot was deflected wide. Watford had another half chance as Niang kept the ball under challenge in the box but, with Deeney in space, chose to shoot across the goal and the chance went begging. The Frenchman threatened again, going on a great run before crossing for Janmaat, who should have done better, but skyed his shot.
The home side made the first change of the afternoon with Mata making way for Fellaini. Deeney had a decent chance to reduce the deficit as he received a long ball in the box, he was challenged as he went to shoot and de Gea was able to parry his shot. Mazzarri’s first change was to bring Okaka on for Zárate. The Italian made an immediate impression advancing down the left before cutting the ball back, his pass was blocked just before it reached Deeney. He was in action again soon after, playing the ball to Janmaat whose shot was just wide of the near post. The home side launched a rare second half attack but Gomes dropped to block a shot from Mkhitaryan. There was an interesting sight soon after as a large phalanx of stewards lined up in front of one of the home stands, apparently to prevent a pitch invasion that they clearly felt would be prompted by Rashford taking the field in place of Martial! Ibrahimovic finished the afternoon as he had started it, receiving the ball in the box and, with the goal at his mercy, flicking his shot away from the target. Each side made a late substitution with Cathcart replacing Success for the visitors and Mkhitaryan making way for Lingard for the hosts. As is usual, with 5 minutes to go, the Old Trafford tourists were streaming out of the ground. It seems so wrong not to stay and applaud a win, but I am old fashioned like that. As it happened, they didn’t miss anything and the game ended with a win for the home side.
The second half had been much more pleasing from the Hornets who had given a good account of themselves and had created some decent chances. This game was always going to be a free hit and results below us meant that we finished the day feeling fairly confident of our place in the division.
As we walked back to the metro station, I told my niece the terrible story of Munich. Then asked her impression of Old Trafford, “I thought it would be more impressive.” She won’t be rushing back.