Bruno Fernandes-inspired Man United cruise past Watford
For the first time since September, Manchester United find themselves in the Champions League places.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's hopes of qualifying for next season's group stages have been significantly boosted over the past week or so - by Manchester City's two-year ban, more than anything else - but back-to-back victories mean United ended the weekend in that newly coveted fifth-place spot.
A Bruno Fernandes penalty and spectacular finishes by Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood proved enough for Solskjaer's side to beat relegation-threatened Watford comfortably. This was a satisfying win and Fernandes's performance will have especially pleased Solskjaer. His influential, all-action display felt like the €55m signing truly announcing himself to Old Trafford.
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Watford will be disappointed. Nigel Pearson's visitors had chances, mainly through Abdoulaye Doucoure, and Troy Deeney saw a potential equaliser correctly chalked off. Even after this defeat, they remain just one point off safety. Yet after enjoying an initial 'new manager bounce' under Pearson, they are also winless in five games and losing momentum at a critical stage of the campaign.
For United, not since beating Leicester City back in September have they found themselves among the Champions League spots. Whether fifth place will be enough depends on the success of City's appeal, of course, and there are plenty of teams eying up this backdoor route into Europe's premier club competition. United, though, are now only three points off fourth-place Chelsea and are only looking upwards.
A lack of quality in opening exchanges made for an entertaining spectacle. United's defence was particularly suspect. Harry Maguire and Nemanja Matic at one stage ran into each other, allowing Deeney to waltz through one-on-one. A recovery tackle by the excellent Shaw saved United's blushes.
Fernandes cut a frustrated figure for much of the first half and eventually decided to take matters into his own hands. Several surging runs through midfield posed questions of Watford's defence and one resulted in Fernandes tripping over Foster's outstretched hand and winning a penalty.
Around a quarter of Fernandes's goals in Portugal were penalties and, given United's inconsistency from the spot this season and the absence of first-choice taker Marcus Rashford, it was no surprise to see him step up. He scored United's league-high 14th penalty of the season, sending Foster the wrong way with a skip before striking the ball.
It was United's first league goal at Old Trafford in 235 minutes and a second could have quickly followed with another Fernandes burst, but after being played in on the break by Martial, his scooped shot dropped wide of the far post. United, finally, were beginning to find their rhythm.
But Watford did not deserve to be behind and believed they had restored parity at the start of the second half when corner deflected off Craig Dawson, bounced against the post and into the path of Deeney, who converted from close range. VAR, however, noticed the ball had hit Dawson's arm. The away end protested but could have no genuine complaints.
And five minutes later, the game was settled as a contest by Martial's moment of brilliance. It began as a genuinely fluent attacking move by United, with Shaw and Daniel James exchanging passes on the left and Fernandes then slotting a ball in behind the Watford defence.
Martial's first attempt was saved by the onrushing Foster, but the former United goalkeeper stayed too far off his line. Martial was allowed to recover possession, stand Foster and his defenders up with a spot of neat footwork and then lift a finish over the 'keeper's shoulder. It was a sublime goal.
And if that was graceful and delicate, the third was emphatic. Greenwood won possession in his own half and drove upfield. After briefly exchanging possession with Fernandes, he moved the ball onto his left foot and converted with power into the top corner. The only disappointment was that Odion Ighalo, a late substitute, did not score against his old club after rounding Foster and drilling into the side netting.
Watford were poor, ultimately, and that all must be taken into account when assessing United's win. Yet Solskjaer has faced plenty of criticism for failing to beat opponents in the lower reaches of the league table this season, so it is only right that he and his players are praised when they take all three points in an effective manner.
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