For Watford a third win in five games, a second on the road and a place in the Premier League’s top 10; for Middlesbrough, anger, angst and the distant echo of that word relegation.
Aitor Karanka’s slow team are in a jam. They have now not won at the Riverside since April 12th. This was a third consecutive defeat here.
While the crowd took out its frustration on referee Roger East, it is the absence of attacking menace should be the overriding worry for Teesside. Jordan Rhodes was sent on in the 88th minute to accompany the labouring Alvaro Negredo but even with six minutes of injury-time, Rhodes was given no chance.
There should be self-criticism because ultimately what separated two flat, equal teams was a bolt from Watford’s Jose Holebas nine minutes into the second half. Bar that, Watford appeared content to hold their own and depart with a first clean sheet of the season.
This they achieved, and more - Watford have 10 points from the last 15.
For Boro, it’s one from 15 and they now face Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester away, with free-scoring Bournemouth and Chelsea at home. So the next five games are unforgiving.
Although Karanka felt that Boro “played really well for the first 30-35 minutes’, that was not the neutral’s opinion. Were Boro brimming with intent then this difficulty acclimatising to the Premier League might be accepted.
But there was some sluggish football on show. The first half felt like a small tragedy.
That’s an exaggeration of course. It just didn’t feel like it as 45 dull minutes dragged by.
It was 42 before there was a shot on target and when it came, from Negredo, it was scuffed volley that rolled like an apology into the hands of Heurelho Gomes.
At least Negredo’s Boro colleague, Gaston Ramirez, tried to engineer some creativity, swaying past Watford white shirts at will. Unfortunately, that was the good side of Ramirez; the bad was his final ball.
Ramirez is a prompter, he is no thunderer and Middlesbrough lack midfield drive.
This enabled Watford to get behind the ball and, given that they started with a back five, this they were prepared to do. There were moments in the second half when their formation looked 5-5-0. Manager Walter Mazzarri was delighted at being “very difficult” to break down.
Watford did not exactly attack at pace themselves. Troy Deeney was barely involved as a striker, though he did his share of chasing.
The lack of excitement brought a focus on referee East – something Karanka continued after with gnomic references. East booked three Middlesbrough players before half-time, enraging the locals, yet he could have dismissed right back Antonio Barragan.
Barragan was booked early for a foul on Isaac Success. Another followed and East spoke at length to Barragan.
The entire first half could be described as a foul on success.
The second had to be better, and it was - just. Boro’s tidy midfielder Adam Forshaw had a decent opening, but shot weakly, and then on 54 minutes Holebas delivered the breakthrough.
That it came from a poor Middlesbrough clearance will annoy Karanka. Marten De Roon played the ball out from his own byline and chose placement over distance. Cristhian Stuani was the aim but Holebas stole in front of the Uruguayan and from 22 yards smacked a left-foot shot into Valdes’ top corner.
Valdes waved his right hand at the ball and may feel he should have stopped it.
The home response was that some urgency entered Boro’s rhythm. There were a couple of crosses and mini-scrambles to show for this but as the game drifted into the last ten minutes, Gomes had still not made a serious save.
When the whistle blew after 96 minutes in all, that was still the case.
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Valdes; Barragan (Ayala 69) Chambers, Gibson, Friend; Forshaw, De Roon (Rhodes 88); Stuani (Traore 69) Ramirez, Downing; Negredo.
Subs not used: Guzan, Bernardo, Clayton, Fischer.
Watford (5-2-1-2): Gomes; Amrabat (Zuniga 72) Prodl, Kaboul, Britos (Kabasele 85) Holebas; Capoue, Behrami; Pereyra; Success (Watson 88) Deeney.
Subs not used: Pantilimon, Mariappa, Guedioura, Ighalo.
Referee: R East (Wiltshire)
Attendance: 28,131Reuse content