As the floodlights flickered and dimmed at Vicarage Road, the light also appeared to run out on Claudio Ranieri’s Watford tenure. Norwich’s win in this crucial relegation six-pointer, delivered by Josh Sargent’s sublime backheel flick and towering header, lifted the Canaries out of the Premier League’s bottom three and dropped Watford into deeper trouble.
Sargent’s first Premier League goal on 51 minutes was a brilliant moment of quality that had been desperately lacking until he turned Teemu Pukki’s cross off the underside of the bar. Moments later, play at Vicarage Road was halted for around nine minutes due to a partial floodlight outage. It wasn’t resolved, as the pitch was still covered in enough light to continue, but when play resumed Sargent rose to leave Ranieri staring into the gloom.
Emmanuel Dennis’s late red card, which came after he had been fortunate to stay on the pitch before half-time, and Juraj Kucka’s calamitous own goal ensured this was a miserable night for Watford. At this club, that usually results in swift action.
Ranieri has only been in charge for 109 days but it seems inevitable that Watford will now pull the trigger on the Italian and enact a second managerial change of the season. Ten defeats in 13 Premier League games under Ranieri leaves the club little to no option as they dropped into the bottom three for the first time this season. Previous managers at Vicarage Road have been sacked for much less.
Meanwhile, by the nature of this being a six-pointer, Norwich emerge with their odds of survival looking that bit brighter under Dean Smith.
The Canaries still have a long way to go to drag themselves clear, by the fact they have played the most games of the teams around them, but back-to-back wins lifts them to within touching distance of Everton and ensures they have important points on the board. Defeat here could have sealed their fate. It will instead leave Smith feeling as if their Premier League status could be salvaged.
This was a big night for both clubs, enhanced before kick-off by a display of fireworks and flames that warmed a freezing evening and added some extravagance to a fixture that was essentially a relegation scrap. It was hard to dress it up as anything else, and the first-half performances from both teams showed why.
Norwich started brighter and benefited from having four forwards players on the pitch in Pukki, Adam Idah, Milot Rashica and Sargent in close proximity. Pukki and Idah were at least a handful and the visitors’ best chance came when Jacob Sorensen pounced on a loose pass from Moussa Sissoko and Sargent rolled it back to Rashica, who curled over.
It was as good as Norwich got in the first half and Watford settled, without seriously threatening. They looked short on ideas other than playing direct to Dennis, who soon became involved in the two notable incidents of the opening period. He was fortunate to escape an early red after coming down on Pierre Lees-Melou’s ankle for a yellow card and then tumbled over Grant Hanley’s outstretched leg in the box. Referee Mike Dean was unmoved as Watford appealed for a penalty, but also took no action on Dennis for the dive that would have seen Watford reduced to 10.
It was a lucky escape but it did not take long until Watford themselves were feeling aggrieved. Kenny McLean burst forward for Norwich but his pass towards Pukki was overhit. Defender Samir looked to guide the ball out of play as Pukki gave chase and went down looking for the foul. Dean allowed the play to continue as Pukki kept it alive on the byline. His ball across the box was behind Sargent but the American’s instinctive touch to flick it off the underside of the bar with an outstretched heel was inspired.
The 21-year-old had to wait for his first Premier League goal to be confirmed as it went to a VAR check for Pukki’s push on Samir, before both teams had to go through a longer stoppage. The bottom halves of the floodlights above the Graham Taylor stand went out, leaving the players standing on the touchline in the freezing night.
Play was eventually allowed to continue but Watford came out cold. Rashica’s cross found Sargent at the back post and the striker added his second with a downward header into the corner. Dennis eventually got the red card he had been fortunate to avoid when he caught Max Aarons with a late challenge. It means the club’s top scorer will miss the crucial trip to bottom side Burnley on 5 February.
As the lights were finally restored to their full brightness, there would be further embarrassment for Watford as Kucka turned Idah’s cross past Daniel Bachmann at the front post in front of the travelling Norwich fans – who enjoyed a rare away win. “You’re getting sacked in the morning,” was their cry towards Ranieri. It was hard to disagree with them.
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