Smalling shows the way as 10-man United hang on af­ter Matic is sent off

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League - By Jeremy Wil­son at Vicarage Road

It was Rio Fer­di­nand who summed up how foot­ball’s nat­u­ral or­der has been chal­lenged so far this season by Wat­ford when he of­fered his pre-match pre­dic­tion. “I see Man United com­ing here and caus­ing an up­set,” he de­clared. And what fol­lowed was in­deed a win for his old club, even if the depth to which Jose Mour­inho’s team ul­ti­mately dug to end Wat­ford’s per­fect Premier League record also said much for their own lim­i­ta­tions.

Beaten al­ready on their trav­els south this season by Brighton and Hove Al­bion, United could take so­lace both from their spirit and the score­line, but they re­main a dis­tance be­hind Liver­pool and Manch­ester City both in points and the qual­ity of their per­for­mances. Two goals in three first-half min­utes ef­fec­tively set­tled the match but, hav­ing shown just a brief glimpse of at­tack­ing flair im­me­di­ately af­ter Romelu Lukaku had put them into the lead, the sec­ond half was all about the so­lid­ity of their rear­guard ac­tion.

The creaks were ev­i­dent in Ne­manja Matic be­ing sent off fol­low­ing a se­ries of fouls and then need­ing a won­der­ful David De Gea late save to deny Chris­tian Kabasele, but they did hold out.

Luke Shaw’s con­cus­sion suf­fered on Eng­land duty meant Mour­inho gave Ash­ley Young a start at left-back against his for­mer club, and he was promptly booed when­ever he touched the ball. That was ac­tu­ally quite fre­quently early in the match as United, backed by trav­el­ling fans who were loudly sup­port­ive of Mour­inho, ini­tially took the game to Wat­ford.

Their first chance fol­lowed one of Young’s over­lap­ping runs, but Paul Pogba’s shot from his cross was well saved by Ben Foster. Alexis Sanchez then cre­ated his own space with a dart­ing run be­fore again forc­ing Foster to parry the ball to safety. Wat­ford had pre­vi­ously only con­ceded three goals this season and, hav­ing han­dled United’s brief flurry with some as­sur­ance, be­gan them­selves play­ing with pur­pose on the counter-attack.

Troy Deeney was es­pe­cially in­flu­en­tial in not just pres­suris­ing cen­tre­backs Chris Smalling and Vic­tor Lin­de­lof, but also step­ping into space in front of United’s back four and link­ing with Wat­ford’s on­rush­ing play­ers.

Deeney had one shot very well saved by De Gea af­ter win­ning pos­ses­sion ear­lier in the move and also helped cre­ate a good chance for Will Hughes.

The Wat­ford sup­port­ers very au­di­bly sensed vul­ner­a­bil­ity in United but, with Mour­inho im­plor­ing his play­ers for­ward, they sud­denly struck twice shortly be­fore half-time.

Marouane Fel­laini was in­volved in both goals, first win­ning the ball in­side Wat­ford’s penalty area be­fore Young’s de­flected cross evaded the de­fence to al­low Romelu Lukaku to chest his fin­ish past Foster.

It was slightly for­tu­itous, but the im­pact on United was ob­vi­ous and there was soon some­thing ap­proach­ing a swag­ger in their foot­ball. Pogba quickly forced an­other ex­cel­lent save from Fos- ter with his left-foot vol­ley be­fore Smalling did dou­ble the ad­van­tage.

Fel­laini had headed the ball to the edge of the six-yard box be­fore Smalling, with his back to goal, su­perbly brought it down on his chest and swiv­elled to evade Wat­ford right-back Daryl Jan­maat and vol­ley past Foster.

Wat­ford re-emerged with pur­pose and, with United pinned back and seem­ingly more will­ing to play on the counter-attack, were re­warded when Ab­doulaye Doucoure’s pre­cise cross was side-footed past De Gea by an un­marked An­dre Gray. Wat­ford cer­tainly had their chances to equalise but, with De Gea typ­i­cally in­spir­ing, United had their “up­set”, although Mour­inho was unim­pressed it was so close.

“I am sorry we don’t have a cam­era in the dress­ing room be­cause I told them what ex­actly hap­pened – that it could be a match to win four or five nil, or to be in real trouble,” he told the BBC.

Gra­cia was phleg­matic – “if we are to lose, it is with this spirit and fight,” was his take – but for United this re­sult was cer­tainly timely, even if sterner tests await be­fore the likes of Liver­pool, Chelsea and Manch­ester City will be look­ing anx­iously over their shoul­ders.

Vol­ley good: Chris Smalling evades the Wat­ford de­fence to turn and fire home the win­ning goal for Manch­ester United

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