by John Jones at the Cardiff City Stadium
A magnificent Gerard Deulofeu hat-trick helped Watford to an emphatic 5-1 victory over a capitulating Cardiff City, who were left aggrieved at a controversial first-half refereeing decision.
The Spaniard shone throughout Friday night’s contest, posing a constant threat to the Bluebirds’ somewhat lethargic defence with his sharp, decisive running and devastating pace.
Neil Warnock’s side went into the game hoping to make it three wins on the bounce in the Premier League after victories over Bournemouth and Southampton, and knew that three points would lift them to the lofty heights of 13th place in the table.
After five weeks out recovering from an appendix operation, skipper Sean Morrison made a surprise return the side, whilst Javi Gracia named a strong starting line-up, with Adam Masina and Roberto Pereyra re-entering the fold.
The home supporters were in fine voice as Cardiff started the game brightly, putting the Watford defence under pressure and stringing together some neat passages of play.
Both teams looked hungry for an early breakthrough, with Josh Murphy and Oumar Niasse linking up well in the opening stages, whilst Deulofeu looked dangerous, holding up play on the edge of the box, only for Daryl Janmaat to blast over.
Just after the quarter hour mark, Cardiff were granted their best chance of the game, as Callum Paterson’s speculative dink into the penalty area somewhat fortunately found itself into the path of Oumar Niasse, who could only fire directly into Foster, as the ball was hurriedly cleared.
Despite Cardiff’s pressure, it was Watford who broke the deadlock after eighteen minutes, as the physical Troy Deeney scrappily battled for the ball after Bruno Manga surrendered possession on the edge of the Bluebird’s area, and played it to Deulofeu, who slotted it past an outstretched Etheridge.
Cardiff’s heads did not drop, however, as they searched for an immediate response. On a night when he lacked potency in front of goal, Niasse did consistently threaten down the left wing, and one such dash nearly saw the on-loan striker go one-on-one with Ben Foster, only for him to be brought down cynically by Etienne Capoue.
Whilst the Frenchman was issued a yellow card for the challenge, the baying crowd were calling for further punishment, and the injustice would soon worsen for the hosts.
Just minutes before the break, Niasse made another burst down the left flank and played in Josh Murphy, who was brought down inside the area by a clumsy, clattering challenge from Janmaat.
The home supporters roared as it appeared inevitable that referee Simon Hooper would point to the spot, but these expectant calls turned to ones of confusion and intense anger as he waved away Cardiff’s penalty appeals.
With supporters, commentators and both sets of coaching staff – as Warnock admitted in his post-match press conference – seeing the challenge as nothing but a stonewall penalty, Hooper was in the smallest of majorities in his decision, and the referee was targeted by rapturous boos that cascaded from the stands as he blew for half-time.
Whilst it may be a stretch to apply the old adage of ‘a game of two halves’ to this fixture, the rather more composed and determined Cardiff of the opening 45 minutes certainly seemed to vanish after the interval.
Such a collapse was made clear just after the hour mark, as a blistering Watford counter attack saw the electric Deulofeu take the ball from inside his own half, into the Cardiff penalty area, around Etheridge and into the net past a despairing Joel Bennett, for his second of the game.
Just two minutes later, Cardiff’s misery was compounded, as a calamitous loss of possession by Harry Arter under little pressure on the halfway line, and subsequent searching ball from Capoue saw Deulofeu in yet again. A deft chip over Etheridge’s shoulder was all it took for the Spaniard to secure the match ball for himself and all three points for the Hornets.
Watford were flying, with the travelling supporters adding insult to injury with a rendition of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ to further taunt the home crowd, whilst Deulofeu showed no signs of slowing down, and a frustrated Warnock threw on Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Kenneth Zohore in hope of a miracle.
Warnock’s frustration would only continue, however, as Deulofeu – clearly bored of scoring – turned provider, unselfishly rolling the ball back for Deeney to fire into a largely vacant Cardiff net.
An 82nd minute goalmouth scramble saw Sol Bamba bundle the ball home for a late consolation goal, but, after Tom Cleverley’s freekick had clipped the frame of Etheridge’s goal, Deeney grabbed his brace to cap a five-star performance from Watford.
After another difficult week for the Bluebirds off the pitch, with ongoing legal wrangles concerning Emiliano Sala, and the late player’s funeral taking place in Argentina last weekend, to lose so heavily, and in such controversial circumstances, was a bitter pill for Warnock to swallow.
“I still don’t understand, for whatever reason, that it’s not given – it’s bizarre” Warnock said of the first-half penalty dismissal, which dominated his post-match press conference.
“When you play the game and you’re in football, you know how goals change games. There’s no excuse for getting battered five [but], going in 1-1 with our tails up and the crowd behind us, it’s a different ball game”.
“It’s the most straightforward one you can get. Troy [Deeney] said it was a nailed-on penalty, so too did [Adrian] Mariappa and all their staff on the touchline”.
“He [Hooper] said he’s seen it back on video and he’s made a mistake. What do you say to that? It doesn’t help me when you get battered five”.
However, an experienced manager, Warnock knows only too well that football will always serve up disappointment, and stressed that his players must shake the night’s frustration from their systems and look ahead to the somewhat daunting task of Premier League survival.
“We’ve had a kick to the teeth, but we have to bounce back again now,” he said.
“I’ve got a good group of lads and we’ve got to get over the disappointment in the next 48 hours and make sure we’re ready for Everton”.