Match Report: Sheffield United 1-1 Watford
By Kevin Affleck
Ben Foster has made some pretty remarkable saves for this club.
There was a double against Wigan in February 2007, several against Plymouth in an FA Cup quarter-final tie in the same year, there was that one he made with his feet against Brighton last season and then an often-overlooked one he pulled off at home to Fulham last season. He might have just topped the lot here in denying John Fleck.
The Sheffield United midfielder would have been eyeing up his fifth goal of the season when substitute Lys Mousset flashed one across the face of the Watford goal after 64 minutes. Fleck caught it sweetly with the instep of his left foot and you just waited, crestfallenly, for the net to ripple but, somehow and from somewhere, Foster scampered across his goal from left to right, stuck out a left leg and the ball deflected away for a corner. It was a reward for never giving up the ghost and making yourself big. It might, just might, turn out to be the most important save of his Hornets' career as that goal may have resulted in a defeat.
It was important the Hornets picked up something, anything, here, to try and establish some momentum and build on the uplifting win over Manchester United. It wasn't pretty at Bramall Lane and was the worst of the three performances under Nigel Pearson, but you can't play well every week and when you don't, you need the structure of the team and the bond within the team to pull you through. That's what they did here and, you never know, this might turn out to be a crucial point in the final analysis. It was almost all three when Gerard Deulofeu, looking for his second of the game, took aim with a free-kick eight minutes from time, but the ball dipped agonisingly the wrong side of the angle of post and bar. It was so, so close.
As disappointed as Deulofeu was with the outcome of that set-piece, everybody would have taken a point before this one kicked off and it was certainly one gained rather than two dropped. We lost one like this at Southampton a few weeks back so this was an improvement, a step in the right direction.
The Hornets needed to show they were up the fight and prepared to mix it at this most raucous of venues. And Christian Kabasele did that from the first whistle. He was omnipresent in the first five minutes, outmuscling Oli McBurnie in one challenge, sliding in on Enda Stevens in the next, winning a key header and then making an interception to prevent David McGoldrick haring clear from halfway. It was the sort of game the combative Belgian was made for.
You also need your goalkeeper to be commanding at a place like this and Foster came to the party, pulling off a remarkable save to deny McBurnie when the ball had seemingly gone behind him and then another at the near post from the same player. The former England 'keeper really is back to his very best.
It was also pretty clear from the early exchanges it was going to be one of those majestic midfield performances from Étienne Capoue and it was from one of two early nutmegs that Ismaïla Sarr bombed down the right and slung over the cross of the half that just eluded Troy Deeney.
You wanted Deulofeu to be coming in at the far post from the left to connect with that one, but he opted for the route straight down the middle seven minutes later to devastating effect. He latched onto a flick-on from Nathaniel Chalobah, took a touch that look like it was on the heavy side but it actually benefited him as meant Dean Henderson was caught between two stools. The Spaniard advanced that little bit further and then tucked the ball in at the near post when Henderson probably thought the ball was going across him. It was classic Deulofeu and reminiscent of one of the ones he got at Cardiff last season.
You then wanted the Hornets to dig in, to continue to keep the Blades at arms' length, grow in confidence and get to the break with their noses in front. It didn't happen as the Blades were level nine minutes later when Ollie Norwood converted from the spot following a foul by Will Hughes on George Baldock as he cut across him. It was a shame as Pearson's side had been fairly comfortable at that point and defended well against the hosts' high-octane approach.
They did, though, manage to get to half-time all square, largely thanks to a fine defensive header from Deeney. He was backslapped by a number of his teammates who knew how important that intervention was. Pearson made an intervention of his own at the break, bringing on Roberto Pereyra for Sarr in what was his 100th appearance for the club since joining from Juventus.
The Argentine couldn't really get into the game in the opening 15 minutes of the second half or in fact at any stage, as the Blades upped the ante. It was something of a containing job for the Hornets and they had to have their wits about them defensively, especially around the time David McGoldrick saw one bounce off the foot of the post and out. That was a close call.
The home side went even closer minutes later when Foster pulled off the most stunning of reactionary saves, somehow getting something on a shot from inside the box from John Fleck that would have resulted in a certain goal.
Boosted by the reprieve, the Hornets came close to a late winner with that dipping free-kick from Deulofeu while Capoue, with his foot, and Mariappa, with his head, had to be at their most alert to keep out the Blades amid a bit of a late onslaught. Even Craig Dawson came on to lend a hand, winning a header from a corner with his first touch. It was a good, solid team effort, exactly the sort of performance needed in this fight we have on our hands.
HORNETS: Foster; Mariappa, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Capoue, Hughes, Chalobah (Dawson, 88); Sarr (Pereyra, HT), Deeney (Gray, 80), Deulofeu.
Subs not used: Gomes, Gray, Quina, Success, Dele-Bashiru.