Juan Mata gifted the top-four aspirations of Manchester United a well-timed shot in the arm when he fired home a late free-kick as Watford’s missed chances returned to haunt them.
Speculation, Doom and gloom about manager Louis van Gaal’s future was suddenly replaced by positivity last week, with impressive wins against Shrewsbury, FC Midtjylland and not the least, Arsenal complementing Old Trafford’s new sensation Marcus Rashford’s extraordinary emergence.
Though it seemed like Manchester United would be shot down to earth with a bump in front of Quique Sanchez Flores’ resolute Watford outfit, only for stand-in captain Juan Mata’s brilliant free-kick to give United a 1-0 victory.
The result now moves van Gaal’s boys level on points with fourth-placed Manchester City, but in goal difference in 5th position following a thrilling night when things could have been way different if the visitors were able to turn large patches of dominance into a goal.
Odion Ighalo came close to score on a number of occasions before the break, while Sebastian Prodl constantly threatening from set pieces as Watford continued to look dangerous in the second half.
However, they paid the price of missing chances by an 83rd minute sucker punch when Mata directed home a left-footed free-kick, extending Manchester United’s winning run to four games in all competitions.
But it was certainly an unconvincing display but the match started reasonably well for United, with Jose Holebas’ mishit clearance in breezy conditions quite lucky to find Watford goalkeeper, Heurelho Gomes, before an unmarked Anthony Martial surprisingly headed wide at the far post.
Then Morgan Schneiderlin went really closer with his brilliant 20-yard volley, but by that point Watford were the better team.
Ighalo and Troy Deeney started to cause some tension and the former should have done better when Daley Blind from nowhere sent a ridiculous pass into his path. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, making his first Manchester United start, then displayed a fine, last-ditch challenge to outrun the Nigerian striker, but his next challenge was really clumsier.
It ultimately led to a booking and free-kick from which Holebas and Prodl managed to create half-chances, before Watford came agonisingly close to hit the net as Deeney directed a header to Ighalo, but Ighalo’s spin and snapshot unfortunately crept just wide.
The Watford striker continued to frustrate his manager and six minutes from the break again surged down the right after United unexpectedly gave up possession. He did well to ride Fosu-Mensah’s challenge but then hit a low strike which David de Gea saved with ease.
The Spanish goalkeeper continued to save his weak defence’s blushes when Blind inexplicably left Guillermo Varela’s pass back during a passage of play which saw the Dutchman catch Etienne Capoue with a lazy leg.
Penalty appeals were luckily ignored and the visitors remained undeterred after break, with Ighalo closed out after Almen Abdi got in a cross.
Rashford’s goal-line block also denied Prodl glancing in a corner as Flores’ boys looked far more dangerous than United, with confidence flowing through the team highlighted by Capoue’s fizzing strike from distance just over.
But United gradually got going as the match stepped into the final 30 minutes, with Mata stinging Gomes’ palms before Rashford directed a low ball which evaded a telling touch in the six-yard box.
Mata then struck wide as the Red Devils were desperately looking for a winner that they almost gifted the visiting side.
Blind was awful throughout the match as he continued his poor evening at the heart of a makeshift defence by repeatedly ignoring De Gea’s calls and sending a weak cross into Fosu-Mensah. However substitute Nordin Amrabat failed to squeeze the ball home. It was Ben Watson who whipped in the resulting corner and Prodl showed some great strength to meet it, but powered his header just wide.
It was a golden opportunity they missed, and Watford were made to rue after Miguel Britos brought down the returning Martial. Mata then stepped up and launched a classy strike that beat Gomes and eventually sent Old Trafford in wild celebration.
Manchester United are now starting to turn on the heat just as a late-season push needed to secure a Champions League berth. When Mata guided home a sweet 20-yard free-kick which ultimately proved to be the winner, there were only seven minutes left and the way the Spaniard wheeled away in celebration, it suggested how he had transformed the match.