Manchester United stamp down Watford resurrection

United were 3-0 up but still needed Jesse Lingard’s late wonder goal to ensure the win

Watford 2 Manchester United 4

Manchester United looked like running away from Watford midway through the first half as Ashley Young enjoyed an early festive return to Vicarage Road, scoring two lovely goals to help open up a 3-0 lead.

Watford never gave up though, dragging it back to 3-2, before Jesse Lingard took the game away from them at the last with a sublime late fourth, weaving his way from inside his own half to finish in front of a delirious away end.

This match had been billed as a meeting of young, hopeful Portuguese tyro and old, toxic, Portuguese grand master. In the event it was a messy, fun affair as José Mourinho’s slightly rejigged, slightly depleted United team flexed their shoulders to open up that lead then just about kept their nose in front as Watford charged gamely back at them.

Vicarage Road was rocking at kick-off on a chilly, still night. This ground has been steadily arm-wrestled into gleaming Premier League shape, with the new stand looming along one side, the groovy looking fishbowl-style boxes in each corner and that agreeably close, crackly atmosphere you only really get in a proper urban ground packed in between houses.

This felt like a vital game form the start, such is the pressure of Manchester City’s white heat at the top of the table, and the clinch already for the remaining champions league spots.

With a tricky early winter run in train Mourinho gave Marcus Rashford a rest after four games in 14 days. He also made the expected shift to three at the back, a common ploy against opponents who tend to play that way.

There may well have been more illustrious backlines in United’s history than a depleted Rojo-Smalling-Lindelof and here Watford set out to press high early on. At times Richarlison likes to man-mark one of the centre-halves and he ran at Lindelof early on, all eager, bounding menace.

It was Richarlison who narrowly failed to get a toe on Kiko Femenía's low cross from the right as Watford started with enterprise. Abdoulaye Doucouré and Will Hughes had an early grip of midfield. Marvin Zeegelaar, wearing his special I've-met-Andy Carroll white face mask, was a threat on the right.

At which point United killed the game in 13 minutes, pretty much from a standing start. It was brutal, high class, and helped by some surprisingly scruffy defending. They took the lead after 19 minutes with a brilliant piece of opportunism from Young. Lingard made a nice run through the centre forward position. The ball broke to Femenía, who failed to control it. Young swung his right foot, connected sweetly and pinged a low, hard, daisy-cutter past Heurelho Gomes’ right hand into the corner.

It was Young's first goal away from Old Trafford since March 2015 and six minutes later he had his second. This was even better. Paul Pogba set off on a fine driving run through the heart of the midfield. Doucouré dragged him back. And from 25 yards Young sidled up and curled a wonderful free-kick into the top corner, a perfect execution from a player who scored a few those for Watford a decade ago.

Young, was recently offered a new United contract that could keep him at United until the age of 34. Not a bad Indian summer for a player who was famously rejected by the Watford academy for being too small, but forced his way in by basically refusing to go away.

And on 32 minutes it was 3-0. This time it was Christian Kabasele who failed to clear, the ball falling to Lingard. He nudged an instant pass to Anthony Martial, who ran on and finished expertly.

The away end gurgled with delight, Watford’s heads dropped and Pogba seemed to have complete control of midfield, too clever, too powerful, always ready to find the right pass. Lingard should have scored but saw Gomes make a brilliant, sprawling save.

Richarlison hit the top of the bar with a header but at half time Watford trooped off looking utterly drained, picked off by United’s razor edge, the ability to punish every error.

Watford threw themselves gamely into the second half, although they might have been picked off on the break too as Pogba continued to link the play with real elan. Nemanja Matic limped off, as did a disconsolate Hughes, followed by Martial ahead of the trip to Arsenal on Saturday.

Romelu Lukaku really should have scored, delaying too long in front of a near-open goal and with 75 minutes gone Watford had a penalty as Marcos Rojo hacked down Roberto Pereyra. Troy Deeney tucked it into the corner. As Vicarage Road roared Doucouré pulled another back with a neat low shot before that grandstand finish from Lingard. – Guardian service

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