Manchester United have closed the gap on Premier League leaders Manchester City to five points courtesy of a thrilling 4-2 victory over Watford at Vicarage Road this evening.
An unlikely brace from Ashley Young against one of his former clubs put United in control of the contest in the first half and Anthony Martial then added a third soon after to send the clinical visitors into the break with a commanding lead.
Watford refused to lie down, though, and threatened a remarkable comeback in the final 15 minutes when Troy Deeney and Abdoulaye Doucoure pulled goals back for Marco Silva’s side.
However, Jesse Lingard responded quickly to quash the Watford fightback with a fine solo effort four minutes from time, sealing a third consecutive league win for United which sees them put the pressure on City, who play Southampton tomorrow.
Watford’s back-to-back wins over West Ham United and Newcastle United had seen them equal their best-ever start to a top-flight season, and they began well against tonight’s opponents too with the in-form Richarlison and Andre Gray coming close to connecting with dangerous early crosses into the box.
Richarlison did get his head to the ball from a corner in the 11th minute, but his effort was blocked before it could test David de Gea and the Hornets soon saw their good early work undone as United took the lead against the run of play.
The opener came from United’s first attack of any note as Romelu Lukaku and Lingard combined to set up Young, who sent a crisp early strike flashing past Heurelho Gomes from the edge of the box.
The wing-back was responsible for the shot which forced the own goal during Saturday’s win over Brighton & Hove Albion, but there was no doubt that he would keep this one and, having waited 19 months for a goal, he made it two in the space of six minutes against his former club.
Young’s second was the pick of the bunch too as the England international curled a stunning free kick into the top corner past a helpless Gomes, despite the ball nestling in on the goalkeeper’s side.
Watford would have been wondering quite how they were two goals down having put in an encouraging performance up to that stage, and their bewilderment was only enhanced as United seemingly put the game to bed shortly after the half-hour mark.
This time it was Martial who stroked his finish past Gomes from the edge of the box after being played through by Lukaku, with the Frenchman notching his eighth goal of the campaign to already draw level with his tally from the entire 2016-17 season.
It capped a clinical 13-minute period for United during which they scored with every meaningful attack, and it wasn’t until the final minute of the first half that Gomes actually made his first save of the contest.
It turned out to be a stunning double-save from the Brazilian too, as he parried Lukaku’s low strike from the edge of the box before recovering in time to miraculously push Lingard’s follow-up effort over the crossbar.
Watford almost pulled a goal back in stoppage time of the first half too as Richarlison, who was a threat in the air all night, again rose highest in the box but saw his header clip the top of the crossbar on its way behind.
The hosts returned for the second half knowing that it would take a memorable comeback to salvage anything from the match, but it was United who came closest to the game’s next goal in the opening stages when Lukaku sent a tame effort wide of the far post with his weaker right foot.
Doucoure and Richarlison both failed to hit the target as Watford looked for a route back into the match, but United should have extinguished any remaining hope with a string of quickfire chances in the final 20 minutes.
Paul Pogba squandered the first of those when he rose unchallenged to meet Lingard’s free kick, only to get his header all wrong and clear the crossbar when he should have at least hit the target.
Lukaku wasted an even better opening moments later, though, taking too long on the ball inside the area after Marcus Rashford had caught Adrian Mariappa in possession and set up a chance on a plate for the Belgian.
Lukaku only had to wait a matter of seconds for an opportunity to redeem himself and this time he was more assured as he drove into a shooting position, only to then drag his effort narrowly wide of the far post.
It looked as though those misses could prove costly when Watford pulled their first goal back just a minute later, with Marcos Rojo – making his first league appearance since April – bringing Andre Carrillo to ground with a rash challenge inside the area.
Substitute Deeney made no mistake with his spot kick as he sent De Gea the wrong way, and that glimmer of hope soon became a tidal wave of belief when the Hornets reduced the deficit to one just seven minutes later.
Once again Carrillo was the architect as he picked out Doucoure with his cross into the box, and the midfielder produced a well-controlled half-volley with the outside of his boot for his fifth goal of the season.
The prospect of a memorable fightback vanished as quickly as it had appeared, though, with Lingard restoring United’s two-goal advantage just two minutes later with a stunning solo effort that saw him run from inside his own half before firing a low strike past Gomes.
Still Watford refused to give up, though, and De Gea had to deal with one final Richarlison cross into the box before United finally made it to the full-time whistle with their lead intact, ending their run of back-to-back Premier League defeats on the road and continuing their challenge for the title at arm’s length.
United’s title credentials will face even tougher scrutiny in the coming weeks with Arsenal and Manchester City next up in the Premier League, while Watford also face a difficult run when they take on Tottenham Hotspur and Burnley in their next two.
Defeat means that the Hornets missed the chance to move sixth for 24 hours at least, while they have now conceded more home goals than any other team in the Premier League this season.