David De Gea’s howler put rock-bottom Watford on course for a remarkable result as Manchester United endured their most chastening loss of the season.
Nigel Pearson’s first home match was a free hit heading into Christmas, with the Hornets nine points off safety before kick-off and already staring down the barrel of relegation.
Yet Watford’s survival hopes received an unlikely shot in the arm on Sunday as United goalkeeper De Gea somehow let in Ismaila Sarr’s shot before Troy Deeney quickly scored a penalty foolishly given away by Aaron Wan-Bissaka in a vital 2-0 win.
— Watford Football Club (@WatfordFC) December 22, 2019
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were out-fought and out-thought in Hertfordshire, where a forgettable first half was followed by a second period to remember for the Hornets.
Having shown promise in defeat at table-topping Liverpool last weekend, Pearson’s men took the lead in a league match at Vicarage Road for the first time since April as Sarr’s 50th-minute effort somehow crept past De Gea.
Wan-Bissaka’s foul on Sarr four minutes later allowed Deeney to double Watford’s lead during an extraordinary start to the second half that United were unable to find a way back into as much as Solskjaer’s stunned side tried.
The visitors only arrived at the ground an hour before kick-off as an accident compounded Christmas traffic around Watford.
Anthony Martial went close with a driven low shot that went just wide in the sixth minute, but early intricate play became increasingly sloppy as the first half wore and Pearson’s side settled.
De Gea was relieved to hear referee Lee Mason’s whistle in the 18th minute as, a week on from feeling he was fouled for Everton’s opener, Craig Cathcart was pulled up for a challenge on the Spain goalkeeper from a corner that had Abdoulaye Doucoure netted from.
Deeney saw an effort blocked and Doucoure glanced a header wide, but Watford could easily have fallen behind had Jesse Lingard made the most of being put through one-on-one by Martial, the England midfielder opting to lift the ball over Ben Foster but seeing his shot also clear the crossbar.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 22, 2019
It was a decision as poor as the opening period at Vicarage Road, where it was hard to differentiate the European hopefuls from the relegation scrappers.
The match was there for the taking and Watford showed the greater desire after the break, which was five minutes old when they broke the deadlock.
Will Hughes swung in a free-kick that fell to Sarr on the edge of the six-yard box and his volleyed effort into the ground somehow managed to creep through De Gea’s grasp at his near post.
Vicarage Road erupted in relief as much as elation and the noise quickly went up several notches.
Having seen a Scott McTominay header saved at the other end, the normally dependable Wan-Bissaka flew into a challenge in the box and brought down Sarr. Mason had no hesitation awarding a penalty that Deeney gleefully slotted home.
Solskjaer turned to Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba, the Frenchman making his first appearance since September, in a bid to change the dynamics, with McTominay attempting to pull one back as the United defence wobbled at the other end.
Marcus Rashford and Pogba had hopeful efforts saved by Foster, but Sarr and Deeney threatened in quick succession at the other end as Watford played with confidence.
Lively Gerard Deulofeu looked to compound matters and Kiko Femenia tried his luck from distance, before Watford decided to batten down the hatches.
Harry Maguire’s header was saved by the impressive Foster as the match entered the final 10 minutes, with Pogba also denied and Greenwood lifting over.
Former United goalkeeper Foster also kept out a Rashford effort before Juan Mata curled a free-kick just wide as the match came to a close.