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Watford beat Middlesbrough to secure Championship top half finish
A season that started with Watford being written off as strong relegation candidates by many has ended in style with Sean Dyche’s men beating Middlesbrough 2-1 to secure a top-half finish in the table and their highest points total in five campaigns.
With Cardiff City winning at Crystal Palace, Tony Mowbray’s side couldn’t have made the play-offs even with a win and they would have felt they deserved to be in front at the break, but could find no way past the returning Scott Loach, who made three or four excellent saves.
Watford offered more of an attacking threat after the break and took the lead with a moment to remember for Chris Iwelumo, who finally got off the mark at Vicarage Road with a lovely finish from a Troy Deeney centre.
It looked like Boro had done enough to earn a point when Marvin Emnes equalised with six minutes to go, but Deeney ensured the season ended on a high by starting and finishing a counter-attack two minutes from the end to seal an 11th-place finish.
The Hornets boss made just the one change following last weekend’s entertaining 2-2 draw at Peterborough United but it was for happy reasons. Tomasz Kuszczak’s partner gave birth to a baby girl this morning, meaning Loach returned to the starting line-up after a 13-game absence.
Middlesbrough went into the game knowing they needed a win to have any chance of making the play-offs and Tony Mowbray shuffled his pack somewhat by making three changes. Joe Bennett, Rhys Williams and Emnes all came into the side, Scott McDonald and Tony McMahon dropped to the bench but Merouane Zemmama missed out.
Both sides started positively but it was the Hornets who had the first attempt in the third minute when a partial block took the pace off Jonathan Hogg’s long-range effort and Jason Steele gathered comfortably.
Nicky Bailey tried a strike from a similar range at the other end soon after but sliced it harmlessly off target. Faris Haroun had the visitors’ next attempt, which was hit more cleanly but that also went wide from around 20 yards.
Neither team was finding it easy to get their passing going on the rain-drenched surface but Nyron Nosworthy had to be on his guard in the 14th minute when Rhys Williams played in a dangerous cross from the right and the centre-half did well to clear under pressure from Lukas Jutkiewicz.
Bouyed by the noise from the travelling fans in reaction to the news that Crystal Palace had taken the lead against a Cardiff side occupying the last play-off spot, Joe Bennett hit a fine strike from 30 yards that Loach did well to parry away from danger.
Boro continued in the ascendency and the Hornets keeper again did well to push Marvin Emnes’ strike from the edge of the area around his near post after the striker hit it with the outside of his right boot.
Another big cheer went up from the Boro army in the 24th minute as the match went through a fairly quiet spell but the Hornets did muster another effort from their first corner of the afternoon a minute later when Prince Buaben’s shot from the left side of the 18-yard box was blocked following Iwelumo’s lay off.
Hogg chanced his arm from distance again in the 29th minute but was again wayward after John Eustace had won two excellent tackles in the centre of the park. But it took another excellent save from Loach to prevent his side from going behind soon after when he turned a Barry Robson strike from 12 yards around his left-hand post after Jutkiewicz had burst into the area from the right and pulled the ball back.
The next shot went Watford’s way in the 37th minute when Carl Dickinson dragged an effort wide from 25 yards after Steele had struggled under pressure to get much distance on a clearing punch from Sean Murray’s hanging free-kick.
Loach proved equal to the test again three minutes later when he got down sharply to his left to push away Faroun’s downward header back across him from Justin Hoyte’s right-sided cross.
Emnes was the next to try his luck with a low drive from the right side of the area following a free-kick but the Hornets keeper held well at his near post.
But the hosts missed a fine chance to take the lead two minutes before the break when Buaben rode a challenge on the right side of the area and drew Steele towards the near post as he cut the ball back from the byline but Iwelumo slipped at the key moment and could only bundle the opportunity wide.
The first incident of note in the second half was a booking for Stephen McManus for a crunching challenge on Hogg that prematurely ended his season as he had to be helped from the pitch following an injury to his left knee. Craig Forsyth took his place, with Buaben moving into the middle alongside Eustace.
The Hornets though, made a promising start to the second period by winning two early corners but it took a tremendous block from Dickinson to deal with a dangerous low Jutkiewicz cross driven in from the left after Nosworthy had been caught trying to play his way out of potential trouble near the edge of his area.
More good defending, this time from Lloyd Doyley, saw a Robson strike from the left side of the area before the Hornets survived a scare when a Jutkiewicz shot inadvertently flicked off the heel of Haroun and went narrowly wide of Loach’s right-hand post as the keeper scrambled to get there.
That was to be Haroun’s last involvement though, as he made way for McDonald in the 58th minute, with Curtis Main also coming on for Jutkiewicz.
Murray had a free-kick blocked behind for a corner at the other end but things had now quietened down at the Boro end as news filtered through that Cardiff were now 2-1 in front at Selhurst Park.
Watford were on top at this stage and they finally managed their first on-target attempt of the afternoon in the 68th minute when Iwelumo forced Steele to go to ground to save his shot. Within a minute, the Hornets had registered their second but this was far more significant.
Deeney did the initial damage by winning a battle with Seb Hines on the edge of the area before breaking into space and playing the ball into the near post where Iwelumo got across and flicked a lovely back-heeled finish beyond the keeper to make it 1-0 and score his first goal in yellow at Vicarage Road.
Bailey, who had spent much of the game complaining about various things, was booked before play restarted for dissent and Eustace joined him on a yellow card a few minutes later for dissent.
Robson forced Loach to save at his near post before Iwelumo tried an ambitious half-volley from the edge of the area that he sliced wide.
But the Hornets could have doubled their lead with eight minutes remaining when Deeney led a counter-attack from the centre circle. With options left and right in the form of Iwelumo and Murray, Deeney skipped past one man but then chose to carry on himself but dragged the shot wide from the edge of the area.
It was to prove a costly miss as, with six minutes remaining, Boro equalised when they attacked down the left side of the area and the ball was pulled back to Emnes, who finished emphatically with a shot that bounced up into the top of Loach’s net.
The visitors weren’t level for long though, as this time Deeney did make the correct decision – and in quite some style.
The striker picked up the ball on the left side of midfield and wrong-footed one opponent before turning Robson inside out as he continued to advance forward. At this stage, the Hornets had a four-on-two situation and Deeney slipped the ball to Forsyth to his left before moving into space in the area to receive the pass back and find the back of the net with a first-time finish in off the far post.
Newly-crowned Watford Observer Player of the Season Adrian Mariappa was given a run out for the closing stages in place of Iwelumo, but there was still time for Boro to almost equalise for a second time when the ball was worked to the right side of the area where a Hoyte shot beat Loach but was scrambled off the line.
Even then, the visitors might still have nicked a point in the fourth minute of injury time when Robson’s deep cross to the back post was headed back across by McDonald but Hoyte wasn’t quite able to get there in time.
The win ensured Watford finished on 64 points, their best tally since reaching the play-offs in 2007/08.
Watford: Loach; Doyley, Nosworthy, Taylor, Dickinson; Eustace; Buaben, Hogg (Forsyth 49), Murray; Deeney, Iwelumo (Mariappa 89). Not used: Gilmartin, Whichelow and Garner.
Middlesbrough: Steele; Hoyte, Hines, McManus, Bennett; Haroun (McDonald 58), Williams, Bailey, Robson; Emnes, Jutkiewicz (Main 58). Not used: Thomson, Arca and McMahon.
Bookings: McManus for a foul (46); Bailey for dissent (70); Eustace for a foul (74).
Referee: Simon Hooper.
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