Mullins cannot lift Watford as Sterling leads City charge
Facing Manchester City was always going to be a daunting task for Watford, but any hope of a bounce from the sacking of Nigel Pearson fell pancake flat as their goal difference took another nosedive with this crushing defeat.
Who will be relegated from the Premier League will go down to the last game of the season, but Watford will be increasingly fearful of their prospects of surviving after conceding four goals here and dropping into the bottom three.
For caretaker-manager Hayden Mullins the worry will be how Watford capitulated after falling behind and how confidence has collapsed
since the season restarted. Playing City following their FA Cup semifinal defeat was never going to be easy and anyone observing Pep Guardiola during the first-half drinks break could see how demanding he is and how he expects more. But Watford’s plan was limited and easily unpicked.
In fact, Watford playing City at any time has been traumatic of late, with this result meaning the aggregate score from their past three meetings alone – including last season’s FA Cup final – is 18-0 (6-0, 8-0, 4-0), while scrolling even further back it increases to 39-3.
The two goals for Raheem Sterling mean he has scored 19 times in the league this season, which is his best return, and he has 33 in 54 for club and country this campaign. Kevin De Bruyne claimed another assist and has 19 for the season, just one behind Thierry Henry’s record of 20, while Phil Foden has five
goals since the restart. With Norwich City to face on the final day, before City prepare for the second leg of their Champions League last16 tie against Real Madrid, there will be yet more opportunities.
Guardiola knows they must improve and, when invited to praise Sterling, it was pointed he made much of the lack of consistency that means this was the first time this season City have won four league games in a row. “He is quality,” Guardiola said. “But the personal achievements are always related to how we have done in the Premier League. We finished far behind the champions, so that is why Raheem must not be happy for the season.”
What can Mullins demand? In three games as caretaker – two in December and now – he has collected just one point without a goal being scored, but it all comes down to trying to rouse a much-improved performance on Sunday at Arsenal.
The logic in sacking Pearson was that a reaction could be provoked in the final two games, but the reality is Mullins simply did not manage to elicit that in game one. It was, from the first whistle to the last, about limiting the damage and frustrating their opponents with a 4-5-1 formation, which left Troy Deeney – nursing a knee problem which is a blow to the team’s prospects – isolated.
They claimed just 23 per cent possession and most of that was deep in their own half.
The outstanding Ben Foster had no chance with City’s opening goal, the first from Sterling, as the winger brought down a mis-hit shot by Kyle Walker before striking the ball high past the goalkeeper. Sterling earned the penalty from which he scored again, before half-time, after he combined with Foden and feinted to shoot. It sent Christian Kabasele to the turf with Will Hughes catching Sterling, who stepped up to take the penalty only for his effort to be brilliantly saved by Foster. The rebound fell to Sterling, who side-footed home.
Already it was about keeping the score down, with Foster again impressing as he turned away shots by Gabriel Jesus and Sterling before he once more denied Sterling, only for Foden to volley the rebound into the net from close range. Watford fell further behind when Aymeric Laporte rose unchallenged to meet a De Bruyne free-kick and head back across Foster.
Sinking feeling: Tom Cleverley reacts after Raheem Sterling’s opening goal for City