Have the lights gone out on Watford and Claudio Ranieri? Norwich’s American, Josh Sargent, scored two fine goals, the first a piece of volleyed improvisation, the second a header before Juraj Kucka’s late own goal, pulled Norwich out of the bottom three. Watford fell into the drop zone for the first time this season and will stay there if their display here is anything to go by.
A match that embraced farce, including some desperately poor play, the Watford striker Emmanuel Dennis being red-carded with the game already lost and a lengthy floodlight failure that came between Sargent’s goals, offered damning evidence why both teams are where they are.
Both clubs have changed managers mid-season but Dean Smith, with recent experience of rescuing Aston Villa from relegation and celebrating his 200th win as a manager, looks better equipped for a salvage job. Norwich climbed out of the Premier League relegation zone for the first time in 53 matches. Ranieri was sacked midway through Fulham’s doomed 2018-19 season and a similar fate probably awaits him at a club rarely shy of making managerial changes.
The Italian deflected questions about his immediate future by saying, “I speak everyday with the board and we are all together” and by apologising directly to Watford fans. “We wanted to light the fire to our fans and we did not do this. Psychologically I hope we react. When we are desperate we react well. Now is the right moment to react. We can’t carry on in this way, we have to change the mentality. I don’t go away, I am a fighter and I don’t give up.”
With a pre-match tribute paid to Graham Taylor, Watford’s finest manager, on the fifth anniversary of his death, there had been an unlikely gala atmosphere for a relegation six-pointer featuring two teams with four points between them since the start of December. And then it took until the 16th minute for Watford to string two passes together.
Sargent, celebrating his first and soon enough his second Premier League goal, described Norwich’s win as a “huge confidence boost for us, hopefully we can take it forwards”, while a delighted Smith first thought the American had “sliced” his volley, one of the goals of the season. “Teemu Pukki did well to continue the play, it was a bit behind me but it was a reaction to put my foot up,” said Sargent. “The second goal was huge and the third goal even more.”
“To get the win was the main thing,” a delighted Smith said. “There was a calmness that came over the players after the goals.” No such calm from Dennis, having been booked for a foul on Pierre Lees-Melou, he had been lucky to escape a second yellow for simulation when hitting the deck with the same player in his vicinity. He finally saw red when clattering Max Aarons in the moments following the second goal, leaving Watford lacking their main goal threat through an unnecessary suspension, probably for another six-pointer, the rearranged game with Burnley.
The ineptitude of the first half continued from both teams as the second began but Watford soon paid for theirs as Norwich finally raised their game. Sargent’s goal saw Moussa Sissoko losing possession before Samir was caught and robbed by Pukki. The ball rattled off the crossbar, behind the line and back out.
Ranieri soon made his first change, the ineffective Tom Cleverley coming off for Cucho Hernández. It came a few moments before the floodlight failure forced Mike Dean, the referee, to halt proceedings in the 61st minute. “We’re Norwich City, we play in the dark,” mocked the away fans when both teams had already played much of the game as if blindfolded.
After players complained to Dean that the lights, flickering on and off to ironic cheers, were not sufficient to play under, there was a touchline pow-wow with both managers that ended with the game restarting after 10 minutes and still in the half-light. “I don’t think it was ever going to get called off,” said Smith. “I wanted to continue,” agreed Ranieri.
Within two minutes of the restart Norwich and Sargent had their second, Milot Rashica escaping down the left, his cross headed in by a youngster flushed with confidence. The home fans, staring down the barrel of Ranieri’s 10th league defeat in 13 matches, began to show severe disquiet.
Amid gloom in both senses Watford attempted to get back into the game, with Ben Gibson forced to make a goal-line clearance, João Pedro having a dig from distance and Kucka’s far-post volley chalked off for offside. Fully 15 minutes were added on to the 90 for them to find a way back but Kucka’s error, from Adam Idah’s byline cross, hastened the end and perhaps for Ranieri, too.