Two moments of attacking brilliance from M’Baye Niang lit up this fractious and ill-tempered game, the Milan loanee scoring one goal and creating another in spectacular style while around him boots, and indeed bookings, were flying about wildly. His 20-yard curler in the 13th minute set Watford on their way to a win that pushes them up to ninth and all but confirms their top-flight place for another season, even if Miguel Britos’s sending off with 25 minutes to play meant the game became more a struggle than a celebration.
For the first time this season the Hornets kept a clean sheet against a side in the top half of the division and, though the visitors created few clear chances, not many will be harder earned. The fiery atmosphere that settled over this match like a foul fog will be familiar to veterans of the teams’ first meeting of the season, at The Hawthorns in December, which Watford also finished with 10 men and a lengthy list of complaints and accusations, but on that occasion with no points.
The referee, Paul Tierney, was booed off at half-time after Craig Dawson’s studs-up challenge on José Holebas went unpunished and James McClean’s off-the-ball ankle swipe on the same player brought only a yellow card, both incidents coming in stoppage time. For much of the second period the match simmered with barely repressed aggression both on the pitch and the bench, where Walter Mazzarri had to be restrained as he rushed furiously at the fourth official after Jake Livermore tackled Niang from behind – again without punishment – in the 54th minute.
“I was trying to speak to the fourth official and since on the other team their whole bench was speaking the whole time with the fourth official, in this game and in the first game on their ground, I thought I could do the same and someone on my bench said I shouldn’t,” the Italian said. “I told him to leave me alone. The rules should be the same for everyone.”
Ten minutes after that Britos, booked for a foul on Hal Robson-Kanu in the first half, gave the ball away in midfield and tugged Salomón Rondón’s shirt in the aftermath, and this time Tierney did act, setting up a breathless and merciless 30-minute barrage that the home side, with a combination of determination and desperation, withstood.
Despite its breathless conclusion Niang’s contribution will be the abiding memory of the match. In the 13th minute Troy Deeney flicked Craig Cathcart’s long pass to Niang, who cut unopposed across the edge of the area before thumping the ball deliciously inside the far post. Watford continued to attack impressively, albeit creating few chances, until Niang’s impeccable first-time 50-yard curling through-ball in the 54th minute found Deeney racing between Jonny Evans and Allan Nyom. In desperation Evans flung out a foot, bringing the striker down and diverting the ball, only for it to bobble up invitingly for the striker to prod past the stranded Ben Foster. Mazzarri described the opening hour as “the best we have played this season” and “the football I would like to see all the time”, a wish his side’s fans would surely share.
For all that, West Brom might have taken the lead in the seventh minute when Robson-Kanu let Darren Fletcher’s pass run through to Nacer Chadli, who ran clear only to strike his first shot into the onrushing Heurelho Gomes and spear the rebound in the wrong direction from a yard. The same player missed their best chance of the second half as well, volleying wide of the near post after the ball had been chipped over the home defence. “I’m not going to criticise the players,” said Tony Pulis. “They gave it a right go tonight but just lacked a little bit of quality and a little bit of luck.”