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Matej Vydra scores twice as Watford beat Middlesbrough
Watford can now boast the joint best away record in the Championship after another impressive day on their travels as they beat Middlesbrough 2-1 to continue their top-six push.
Tony Mowbray’s side had gone into the game with the second best home record in the division, having taken 31 points out of a possible 39 prior to kick off. But they were caught out in first-half injury-time when Matej Vydra, who was incorrectly sent off in the fixture between the two sides earlier in the season at Vicarage Road, capitalised on a mistake from Rhys Williams to put his side ahead against the run of play.
That was a great scenario for the Hornets though, who knew Boro would have to come at them after the break, allowed the visitors to seek to utilise their proven counter-attacking game.
Boro keeper Jason Steele was to twice thwart Vydra in one-on-one situations before the Czech striker made it 14 for the season with the latest entry on an increasingly growing list of composed finishes.
The striker really should have been celebrating a hat-trick before the end, but somehow missed the target when clean through again, before Scott McDonald netted an injury-time consolation for the hosts.
The win though, makes it six unbeaten league matches on the road for Gianfranco Zola’s men, who have taken 14 points from a possible 18 in those games to continue their challenge at the right end of the table.
The Hornets boss made three changes to the side which was knocked out of the FA Cup seven days previously by Manchester City and reverted to his tried and tested 3-5-2 formation, having started with a 3-4-3 shape at the Etihad Stadium.
Manuel Almunia and Almen Abdi had both recovered from the respective injury problems that kept them out of the cup tie, while Cristian Battocchio came in for just his second Watford. The three to make way were Jonathan Bond, John Eustace and Fernando Forestieri, who were joined on the bench by Craig Forsyth following his loan spell at Bradford City.
The hosts had most of the very early possession following the kick off and Almunia was the first keeper called upon to make a save, dropping to his left to hold on to a long-range effort from Emmanuel Ledesma.
There were a couple of moments in the opening five minutes that suggested the Hornets could have some joy on the counter-attack if their passing was accurate enough. But it was Boro who had the next attempts when a Lukas Jutkiewicz shot from the edge of the area was blocked before he inadvertently got in the way of a piledriver from Ledesma.
Mowbray’s men combined neatly in and around the Watford box in the ninth minute to release McDonald on the left side of the area but Joel Ekstrand produced a good blocking challenge to prevent his effort from testing Almunia.
After George Friend had headed the resultant corner tamely over the top, the Watford keeper was called into action again to deal with a well-struck McDonald effort from 25 yards as the home side continued to ask more questions with their 4-2-3-1 formation.
Ekstrand made his second key tackle of the contest in the 17th minute after a ball over the top had almost released Jutkiewicz and then an under-pressure Almunia was forced to punch the resultant corner off his own line.
While never under the cosh in the first 20 minutes, Watford had been unable to get a period of controlled possession in an area where they could threaten their opponents, although that could have happened in the 22nd minutes when Nathaniel Chalobah gave the ball to Marco Cassetti, who immediately knocked it back inside to Abdi. The Swiss midfielder advanced inside – and could have carried on – but instead tried to slide in Vydra and any hope of an opening went begging.
The next chance came Boro’s way when a fine pass from Josh McEachran found Ledesma in space on the right side of the area. He weighed up his options before delivering a dangerous cross to the far post where Cassetti did well to head behind as Friend was set to pounce. This gave the home side their third corner of the match and from it, Seb Hines headed powerfully over the top.
The Hornets had barely had a sniff of the opposition goal thus far but they could have gone ahead in fortuitous fashion in the 28th minute when a useful Cassetti cross from the right was sliced narrowly over his own bar by Williams.
Back came Boro though, with a pass releasing McDonald down the inside right channel but Lloyd Doyley tracked him and did enough to deflect his shot wide of Almunia’s left-hand upright.
Jutkiewicz had Boro’s third on-target attempt in the 37th minute when his header from a Nicky Bailey right-sided cross was comfortably held by Almunia, but the hosts spurned a great chance to take the lead soon after.
Chalobah was dispossessed by Jutkiewicz, leaving the hosts two-on-two as the striker advanced. He then slipped it his left where McEachran was in plenty of space and really should have struck a first-time shot, but he wanted to check back on to his right foot, giving a combination of Almunia and his defenders the chance to close him down and win the ball back.
The Watford keeper was pressed into action again four minutes before the break when he dived to his right to push away a low left-footed curler from Ledesma from the edge of the area.
The opening period looked set to end goalless but in injury time the hosts were punished for a defensive lapse.
The Hornets built well down the right, with Troy Deeney feeding Cassetti but his cross should have been routinely dealt with. Williams though, chose to chest it down, giving Vydra the opportunity to nip in and stab home his 13th of the season from close range to give Zola’s men an unlikely 1-0 advantage at the break from their first attempt of the half.
Having scored with their first effort, the visitors doubled their shot count within 40 seconds of the restart when Daniel Pudil fired wide of Steele’s near post after being found in space on the left by Vydra’s pass.
After Boro had won their sixth corner of the match, Watford broke quickly in the 49th minute through Abdi down the right. He passed inside to Battocchio, who let the ball run to Vydra and he burst into the area and was through on Steele on the angle but the keeper did well to deflect his shot over the bar.
McDonald thought his side should have been awarded a penalty when his right-footed shot was deflected wide of Almunia’s near post. But their opponents were getting much more of the ball in promising areas in the opening stages of the second half, with Abdi the next to chance his arm with a left-footed strike which drifted wide.
Mowbray was the first manager to make a change in the 57th minute, bringing on Adam Reach for McEachran. Within two minutes of entering the fray, the substitute had almost equalised in superb style, chesting the ball down around 25 yards out before hitting a fine left-footed volley that had Almunia at full stretch as it flew narrowly wide of his left-hand post.
Another chance opening up for Boro in the 63rd minute when Chalobah gave the ball away and it was worked to Ledesma in the area, but he dragged his left-footed shot across the target and wide.
Watford threatened on the counter four minutes later when Chalobah’s ball up field was gathered by Vydra, who laid it off to Deeney. He in turn gave it back to his strike partner, who teed up the supporting Battocchio for a shot from the edge of the area but this was charged down.
Jutkiewicz made way for Ishamel Miller in the 69th minute and Mowbray completed his changes two minutes later by bringing on Merouane Zemmama for Ledesma.
The sense though, was that Watford had their increasingly frustrated opponents pretty much where they wanted them as the last 15 minutes approached, with a second goal always a possibility on the counter-attack as Boro’s search for an equaliser became increasingly desperate.
That almost happened in the 75th minute when a lovely pass from Battocchio released Vydra, who checked out on to his left foot to leave him through on Steele but for the second time in the half the Boro keeper was equal to it. He couldn’t keep hold of the ball though, and it was worked back to Battocchio, whose shot from the edge of the area was also saved and then Steele also dealt with Deeney’s follow up.
But the second that Watford had been threatening did arrive with seven minutes to go – and it came from an ever-dependable source.
The Hornets countered and the ball was worked to the left side of the area where Abdi fed Vydra and having been denied twice by Steele, there was no way he was going to be thwarted for a third time as he calmly dispatched his second of the afternoon into the bottom corner to make it 2-0.
John Eustace came on for Chalobah before play could restart but Boro then almost pulled one back when a McDonald shot was deflected narrowly wide of the far post.
But it really should have been 3-0 soon after, with Vydra celebrating the first hat-trick by a player in a Watford shirt since Michael Chopra hit four in the memorable 7-4 victory at Burnley in April 2003.
There was no surprise the situation developed from a counter-attack and this time it was Eustace who received the ball just inside the opposition half. He released Vydra, who looked odds-on to bury his third of the afternoon but proceeded to miss the target as most inside the Riverside Stadium expected the net to bulge.
The striker had worked very though, and was replaced by Mark Yeates before Deeney showed great strength to get through on Steele but again the Boro keeper proved equal to the challenge.
Watford had not kept a clean sheet on the road all season – and Boro had not failed to score all at home in a game during the current campaign – but both those records looked set to change until the third minute of injury time when McDonald got to a left-sided cross just ahead of Almunia to head in a consolation.
It was an irritating way to end the match for the visitors, but it could not take the gloss off another very good day on the road.
Middlesbrough: Steele; Bailey, R Williams, Hines, Friend; Leadbitter, Haroun; Ledesma (Zemmama 71), McEachran (Reach 57), McDonald; Jutkiewicz (Miller 69). Not used: Thomson, Parnaby, Leutwiler and Smallwood.
Watford: Almunia; Doyley, Nosworthy, Ekstrand; Cassetti, Abdi, Chalobah (Eustace 84), Battochio, Pudil; Deeney, Vydra (Yeates 89). Not used: Forsyth, Anya, Bond, Geijo and Forestieri.
Bookings: McDonald for a foul on Ekstrand (90).
Referee: Mark Brown.