Watford’s emerging status as a force towards the top end of the Championship has grown still further after they thumped Barnsley 4-1 to make it four wins in five and seven games unbeaten to rise up into the play-off places at Vicarage Road this afternoon.
Troy Deeney celebrated his 100th appearance for the Hornets by netting a brace – the second goal was his 50th in senior football – and Mark Yeates and a Matej Vydra penalty also found the back of the net for Gianfranco Zola’s men, who also hit the woodwork three times and created numerous other opportunities.
While it was another convincing win for the Hornets, they did need Manuel Almunia to make a fine double save and a superb goalline clearance from Tommie Hoban to keep the Tykes out when the Hornets were only a goal to the good.
The Watford keeper though, deserved a clean sheet and he would have got one were it not for an injury-time mistake from Joel Ekstrand that allowed Marcus Tudgay to net a consolation.
But the Hornets were already certain of maintaining their 100 per cent record against Yorkshire opposition this season, making it four wins from four and scoring 17 goals in the process.
Gianfranco Zola made just the one change from the side that won impressively against Sheffield Wednesday in midweek, with Alex Geijo making way for Deeney.
The game got off to a fairly sedate start but the hosts almost made the breakthrough in the fourth minute when left-back Scott Golbourne slipped as he tried to deal with Fernando Forestieri’s ball inside him, putting Marco Cassetti through on goal. The Italian struck a firm rising drive which Luke Steele did well to parry up in the air but the second ball wouldn’t fall for Deeney.
Almunia was soon into the action, making routine stops from shots by Emile Sinclair and Craig Davies but in between those the Hornets won their first corner but Hoban scuffed Yeates’ right-sided set piece wide.
But from Yeates’ second corner in the tenth minute after some neat interplay, with Nathaniel Chalobah heavily involved, Watford took the lead.
This time the delivery came in from the left and Deeney did very well to lean backwards and direct a header past the helpless Steele to score for the fifth match in succession.
Akos Buzsaky dragged a long-range effort harmlessly wide as the Tykes sought a quick response and five minutes later the on-loan Portsmouth player went on a jinking run that ended with him firing another effort wide from the edge of the area.
However, the visitors then won two back-to-back corners, both of which forced Almunia into action.
The first set piece was played in from the right and Davies met it with a looping header that was heading inside the keeper’s right-hand post until he got across to tip it onto the post and behind. However, the former Arsenal stopper had to be at his best to prevent Barnsley from levelling the second, making a smart reaction stop to keep out an initial flicked header before making an even better save to deal with Davies’ follow up.
Watford had been quelled as an attacking force for a period but they almost scored a fine second after 24 minutes when Forestieri turned back inside off the left before striking a low right-footed 25-yard shot that Steele had to dive full length to turn around his near post.
Yeates’ deliveries had been good thus far and from his fourth corner of the match, Ekstrand got across the near post area but was unable to direct his effort on target.
The Hornets’ next opportunity arose when Jonathan Hogg was gifted possession and allowed to advance before finding Deeney who, in pausing briefly to get his body into a position to try and pass the ball beyond Steele, gave Martin Cranie the opportunity to get in a tackle. Once again though, Yeates’ resulting corner almost led to a goal as his delivery picked out the umarked Cassetti, whose flicked header looped across goal before rebounding out of play off the top of the bar.
Barnsley were forced into a change in the 32nd minute when Stephen Dawson replaced the injured Jacob Mellis but moments later the hosts spurned a golden opportunity to go two up.
Forestieri created the opportunity for himself, spinning superbly away in the centre circle to give him a yard or two and go through one-on-one on goal. But as the Argentine closed in on Steele he briefly paused, allowing a challenge to come in and the opportunity was lost. Although there was a suggestion the 22-year-old might have been pushed over, referee Fred Graham was unmoved and there were no real appeals from the home side.
And the Hornets would have paid the price for not converting more than one of their opportunities were it for a stunning piece of defending from Hoban in the 39th minute.
The chance arose when Sinclair was put away behind the right side of the Hornets defence and, after rounding Almunia, he looked certain to score, only for the teenage centre-half to get back and superbly block the ball on the line with his chest.
There followed a worrying moment for Chalobah when he went down with what potentially looked like a knee ligament injury but after receiving treatment he was able to continue.
Another chance came and went for the Hornets in first-half injury-time when Daniel Pudil fired in a low delivery from the left, only for Forestieri to miss his kick as Deeney was readying himself to pounce behind him.
Buzsaky had the first attempt after the restart, curling a 25-yard free-kick harmlessly wide of the near post. The visitors then won a couple of corners as they continued to make the early running in the second period.
Save for one Forestieri run, the Hornets didn’t really get going as an attacking force after the break and struggled to establish any pattern to their play. But that changed on the hour-mark when one of Watford’s form players scored his second in as many games.
Deeney deserved much of the credit because he held the ball up on the left before a lovely back-heeled lay-off released Yeates tight to the touchline to the left of the target. The midfielder was looking for other options as he accelerated towards goal on the angle but when none was presented, he confidently passed the ball beyond Steele and into the far corner to make it 2-0.
And two became three five minutes later thanks to some quick thinking and a superb finish by a striker at the height of his confidence.
The incident arose when Forestieri was tugged back on the edge of the area but as the Tykes began to set themselves for what they thought would be a set piece, the Argentine slipped the ball through to Deeney, who fit a first-time shot on the turn from just inside the edge of the area to double his tally and score his 50th senior goal.
That was to be Forestieri’s last involvement as he was replaced by Matej Vydra before play had restarted. Reuben Noble-Lazarus then came on for Sinclair before Zola made his second change, sending on for Cristian Battocchio for Chalobah.
Battocchio almost made an instant impact, heading a Pudil cross across the target and wide, before teeing up Deeney, whose right-footed shot was parried up in the air before being claimed at the second attempt by Steele.
Cassetti dragged a shot wide before Deeney’s landmark afternoon came to an end after 82 minutes when he made way for Geijo, while Jim O’Brien came on for Jonathan Greening.
But a good afternoon got even better a minute later when Vydra was hauled over in the box by Jim McNulty and there was very little doubt about what would happen next as the Czech international confidently sent Steele the wrong way from the penalty to make it 4-0 and move back level with Deeney at the top of the club scoring charts on eight apiece.
The seemingly relentless pursuit of more goals continued as the Hornets then launched a sweeping counter-attack which ended with Ekstrand running the full length of the pitch before unleashing a ferocious 25-yarder which Steele did well to tip over. From the resultant corner, Ekstrand was denied again, this time by the crossbar following his header.
It was almost five again in stoppage time when Vydra was flattened around 25 yards from goal and Yeates struck a superb free-kick that cannoned off the near post with Steele beaten.
Almunia deserved his clean sheet but he was let down by Ekstrand at the very end when the Swede carelessly gave away the ball and Tudgay made no mistake to make it 4-1 and give Barnsley a consolation goal at the end of a ninth game without a win for the visitors.
Watford: Almunia; Ekstrand, Hall, Hoban; Cassetti, Hogg, Chalobah (Battocchio 71), Yeates, Pudil; Forestieri (Vydra 65), Deeney (Geijo 82). Not used: Dickinson, Murray, Bonham, and Mjunagi Bia.
Barnsley: Steele; Cranie, Foster, McNulty, Golbourne; Greening (O’Brien 82), Buzsaky, Mellis (Dawson 32); Tudgay, Davies, Sinclair (Noble-Lazarus 70). Not used: Alnwick, Wiseman, Cywka and Stones.
Referee: Fred Graham.