Watford 0 Norwich 3
Have the lights gone out on Watford and Claudio Ranieri? American Josh Sargent scored two fine goals, the first a piece of volleyed improvisation, the second a fine header, before Juraj Kucka's late own goal, pulled Norwich out of the bottom three, and for the first time this season, Watford fell into the drop zone.
A match that embraced farce, in terms of its low-quality football, and a lengthy floodlight failure that came in between Sargent’s second-half goals, offered plenty of evidence why both teams are where they are. At a club with owners not shy of making multiple managerial changes, Ranieri’s future can only be in severe question.
With Newcastle struggling to spend their new owners’ cash and Burnley beleaguered, a relegation equation of three from four appears set in stone. Neither of these teams had the finance or ability to take a sunshine Saudi break like Newcastle, and yet might still escape, this the definition of a six-pointer.
Norwich could climb out of the Premier League relegation zone for the first time in 53 matches, last week’s defeat of Everton the first victory any of the bottom four had celebrated in 20. The first half’s sequence of panicked, mediocre play suggested just why these two were part of that quartet.
With a pre-match tribute paid to Graham Taylor, Watford's greatest ever manager, on the fifth anniversary of his death, there was a gala atmosphere. It took time for either team to rise to the occasion.
Milot Rashica buzzed with intent but Norwich's static front pairing of Teemu Pukki and Adam Idah gave him little to work with. It was Rashica, with a blocked free-kick, and a 12th-minute sighter, firing the shots during early-stage dominance by the visitors that did not last.
Dean Smith, the Norwich manager, having stopped the rot of six league defeats in succession, had opted for the same team as against Everton, minus injured goalkeeper Tim Krul, replaced by Angus Gunn. Todd Cantwell, linked with a January transfer, was absent from the squad despite being on the pitch with his colleagues pre-match. He was soon joined in the stand by Jacob Sørensen, replaced in midfield by Kenny McLean after an early knock.
It took until the 16th minute for Watford to string two passes together, a move that ended with Emmanuel Dennis's misjudgment of a cross. Characteristically, Ranieri had shuffled his pack after last week's draw with Newcastle ended a run of seven defeats, making four changes, though he was also forced to swap in his goalkeeper with Ben Foster, missing with Covid, replaced by Daniel Bachmann.
Craig Cathcart, another of Watford's veteran class, was also missing. In his absence, new signing Samir climbed highest to a Tom Cleverley corner but his header on the half hour was saved easily by Gunn as Watford began to ratchet up the pressure. Norwich stayed back in numbers, now themselves incapable of completing a sequence of passes.
Dennis, having been booked for a foul on Pierre Lees-Melou, was perhaps lucky to escape a second booking for simulation when hitting the deck with the same player in his vicinity. The first half closed with João Pedro and Moussa Sissoko missing decent chances for Watford.
Sissoko's muscle, shouldering off Max Aarons, created an early second-half chance that João Pedro wafted over the bar as the ineptitude continued at both ends, with Watford soon paying for theirs. Sargent's first goal, as well taken as it was, saw Sissoko lose possession before Samir was caught and robbed by Pukki, and the ball rattled off the crossbar, behind the line and out before it was awarded.
Ranieri soon made his first change, the ineffective Cleverley coming off for Cucho Hernández. That came just a few moments before the floodlight failure saw Mike Dean, the referee, halt proceedings in the 61st minute. "We're Norwich City, we play in the dark," mocked the away fans though it might be said both teams had played much of the game as if blindfolded.
After players informed Dean that the lights, which flickered on and then off to ironic cheers, were not sufficient to play under, there was a touchline pow-wow with both managers that ended with the game restarting after 10 minutes and still in the half-light.
Within two minutes of the restart, Norwich and Sargent had their second, Rashica escaping down the left, and his cross headed in by a player clearly now flushed with confidence. The home fans, staring down the barrel of Ranieri’s 10th league defeat in 13 matches, began to show their disquiet and Dennis was shown a second yellow card for a high challenge on Max Aarons.
Amid gloom in both senses, Watford did try and push back into the game, with Ben Gibson forced to make a goal-line clearance, Joao Pedro having another dig from distance and Kucka having one chalked off for offside. Fully 15 minutes had added on, but Kucka's error, in misjudging Idah's byline cross to knock the ball past Bachmann, hastened the end for Watford, and perhaps for Ranieri.