This natch report comes to you from dizzying heights – both literally and figuratively. I watched the game from Aspen Colorado, a breathless 7800ft above sea level, and at the end of it, City are in the equally breathless position of outside the bottom four albeit having played extra games.
You didn’t need to be Mystic Meg to predict that Dean Smith would pick an unchanged side to take on Watford, resplendent in their highlighter orange kits, and in the opening minutes, they clearly had no difficulty seeing each other as they charged forward putting the hosts firmly on the back foot.
The positivity of the Everton game was in evidence once again. Adam Idah proving to be a handful for the defence once again. Milot Rashica was also bright in the opening minutes, as was Josh Sargent whose partnership with Max Aarons on the right was looking dangerous.
City won a couple of free-kicks towards the edge of the area, the first was blasted against the wall, the second resulted in a Grant Hanley foul. Watford were quick and ready to strike back on the break but Pierre Lees-Melou and Jacob Sorensen were doing a good job of protecting the defence.
On 12 minutes, Sorensen picked up a knock and looked to be in considerable discomfort. He played on for a further 8 minutes but was clearly struggling and Watford began to get a foothold in the game. He lasted until 20 minutes when he was replaced by Kenny Mclean.
Watford began to dominate as City dropped deeper and deeper. The rapid build-up play of the opening minutes was gone and they resorted to long balls out of defence, from which even the on-fire Idah could do nothing with.
For all their possession, Watford created precious few chances, a weak header straight at Angus Gunn being one of the few meaningful attempts on goal. On 35 minutes, the game changed.
Lees-Melou had been having a battle with Dennis throughout the half and as the Frenchman went for a 50/50 ball, Dennis went in with a studs-up stomp that caught the City player on the ankle, resulting in a yellow card. For the remainder of the half, the game descended into a series of niggling tackles. McLean also saw yellow for a foot-high tackle, although there appeared to be minimal contact.
The half ended with a Watford break and Sissoko spooning an awkward ball so wide it almost went for a corner.
Over half-time, it appeared that Dean Smith had more to do. Watford had had the majority of the possession, albeit created little. City on the other hand had looked dangerous when they had got forward – it felt like a goal could come.
The second half started brightly again. McLean making a powerful run into the box but his cutback was blocked.
McLean was influential again on 50 minutes. He played a through ball to Pukki, he battled and won the ball, crossing from right on the by line. The ball looked to be going behind Sargent yet somehow the American hooked his leg back and struck the ball with his heel, off the bar into the net.
Let’s be clear, this wasn’t in the Dean Coney class, this was a deliberate effort that survived a VAR check for a foul by Pukki and a check that the ball crossed the line.
The return of confidence to the City players was tangible, but Watford still looked a threat. Throughout the game, they were able to find the gaps between Aarons and the two centre-backs. City were able to fill in and cover, but I feel a more potent opponent would have made far more of these moments.
And then the lights went out. And came on again. And went out. Fifteen minutes passed before referee Mike Dean determined what everyone else could literally see – that it was easily bright enough to continue.
The restart saw improved confidence from the City players at the back, playing the ball confidently between themselves in tight situations, rather than just lumping it long.
On 73, after just such a spell, the ball came forward to Idah in an advanced position on the left. He used his strength and laid it off to Rashica. The Kosovan was strong to defeat an attempted push, burst past the defender and floated a great cross into the area. Sargent was there, powering his way towards the static defence and placed a header across goal and into the net.
Another tense wait for VAR to prove that Rashica was onside before the City fans could truly celebrate.
Moments later, that Dennis yellow from the first half came home to roost as he went in on Aarons with a high, studs-up tackle. Like the Mclean yellow, contact was minimal but enough to reduce the home team to ten men.
On 85 minutes, a game of rugby broke out as a bundle of players engaged in a battle for the ball that looked straight off the playground of any junior school. Watford emerged with the ball and broke rapidly again, ending with a Pedro shot over the bar – one that Gunn appeared to have covered.
At this point, Smith hit ‘bank’; took Pukki off and brought Sam Byram on to beef up the midfield. A good spell of City possession followed, ending only with a misplaced pass from the substitute.
If there was any complacency amongst the City players, on 89 Watford issued a warning; a cross beautifully volleyed in by Sissoko before the linesman’s flag ruled it out for offside.
After 90 minutes, the board was held up for 15 minutes of extra time – it wasn’t over despite the home support seeping out of the ground.
On 91 minutes, the seep turned into a flood. Idah picked up the ball in the area, beat his man and pulled another ball back for Kucka to slide past his own keeper. In fairness, had he missed, Rashica had a tap-in, but 3-0 it was.
In a stroke, City had doubled their away goals tally for the season.
To their credit, Watford still pressed, Hernandez having a superb strike cannon off the bar – again, had it been on target it appeared that Gunn had it covered.
By the end of the game, the stadium was resonating to the chants of the City supporters who were in great voice all game.
So, three goals, a clean sheet, two wins in a row and out of the bottom three. A good performance. Not a great performance but a vital one nonetheless.
Sargent and Idah looked a handful for the defence, Pukki ran tirelessly and Rashica was always a threat. The midfield looked visibly weakened when Sorensen went off but McLean was central to the first goal.
What City now have is a platform to build on and some much-needed confidence. City supporters are already enjoying 2022!