Norwich secured back-to-back Premier League wins to ignite their hopes of survival as Josh Sargent scored twice in a fine 3-0 victory over Watford at Vicarage Road on Friday Night Football.
After a first half low on quality, Sargent lit up this relegation six-pointer with a finish worthy of deciding any contest as he readjusted his feet to produce a superb improvised finish to break the deadlock (51).
Watford manager Claudio Ranieri was in need of a spark, but there would be an 11-minute stoppage due to floodlight failure to further frustrate the hosts’ attempts to respond. After the lengthy stoppage, it was Norwich who doubled their lead as Sargent rose above Hassane Kamara to give the Canaries daylight (74).
Emmanuel Dennis was already on a caution when things got even worse for the hosts as the Nigeria forward was sent off for a second bookable offence having caught Max Aarons (78), and Norwich put the seal on an impressive away display as Juraj Kucka turned Adam Idah’s cross into his own net in the second minute of stoppage time.
This could prove a damaging result for Ranieri, who has still only won two of 13 league games since taking charge, with this loss the seventh in eight matches. The result moves Norwich out of the relegation zone for the first time this season on 16 points – two clear of Watford, who replace them in the bottom three, albeit having played two games fewer.
Dean Smith is the first Norwich manager to win back-to-back Premier League matches with the club since Alex Neil in April 2016, and they will now feel confident of consolidating their place in the top flight.
Watford: Bachmann (6), Femenia (6), Kabasele (5), Samir (6), Kamara (5), Sissoko (6), Kayembe (6), Cleverley (5), Dennis (4), King (6), Joao Pedro (5).
Subs: Sema (n/a), Hernandez (n/a), Kucka (n/a).
Norwich: Gunn (7), Aarons (7), Hanley (7), Gibson (7), Williams (7), Sargent (8), Sorensen (6), Lees-Melou (6), Rashica (6), Idah (7), Pukki (6).
Subs: Byram (n/a), Placheta (n/a), McLean (7).
Man of the match: Josh Sargent.
Sargent sparks Norwich into life
“First of all I have to say sorry to the fans,” Ranieri said. “I told the players to ignite the fire. The second half after the goal, we disappeared. Maybe we played better with 10 than 11.
“Now we must pick up the players who have heart like Sissoko and Cleverley. Only the players with the fight can help us survive. We have to change our mentality. We cannot carry on in this way. I want players who can play with passion and heart.”
When asked if he would consider his position, Ranieri added: “I don’t go away. I want to continue because I am a fighter. I’ve never given up in my career.”
For both Watford and Norwich, the thrill of promotion from the Championship was rapidly replaced by the notion that this would be a season of struggle. Both have flip-flopped between England’s first and second tiers in recent years, but this was already billed as a relegation six-pointer in January.
Their respective recent outings had provided a glimmer of hope of avoiding the drop – Norwich ended a six-match losing streak with victory over Everton, while Watford ended a barren run themselves with a battling late point at Newcastle.
The Hornets needed no reminding heading the game it is now two months since they last won a match – the 4-1 home win over Manchester United – but it was the visitors who made the stronger start with Milot Rashica blasting a free-kick into the wall and another opportunity off target.
Ranieri described this meeting as a “cup final” but warned his side victory would not guarantee survival, and his team slowly shook off their sluggishness to carve open a few half chances; the impressive Samir headed over unmarked from Tom Cleverley’s corner before fine footwork from Joao Pedro led to a snapshot into the gloves of Angus Gunn.
Moussa Sissoko’s inability to readjust his feet to meet Joshua King’s cross in stoppage time summed up the half. Heading into the weekend, only three points separated the bottom four teams, but you would not have sensed the pressure during an opening period bereft of goalmouth action.
“It’s been a really poor game, and I wouldn’t even say it’s been tense,” Gary Neville said at the break. “It’s just been really poor quality. Will they be happy at half-time? I wouldn’t say the clean sheets have been as a result of good defending. The quality has to improve.”
A first win in nine for the Hornets would have acted as a springboard for them to put distance between themselves and the bottom three but two triumphs over the Canaries in the 2019/20 campaign were still not enough to beat the drop.
Ranieri arrived at Vicarage Road in October and promised his squad a free dinner if they were able to keep a shut-out in his opening match at home to Liverpool. They lost 5-0 that day and they still await that meal with Norwich breaking the deadlock six minutes after the interval.
Kenny McLean gobbled up Christian Kabasele’s poor clearance and while his pass seeking Teemu Pukki initially appeared over-hit, the striker was too strong for Samir and the Finland international crossed for Sargent to produce the most sensational of finishes with his heel as the ball looped back across goal and over the line via the crossbar.
Jamie Carragher said: “I thought the chance had gone, but Pukki did so well to keep it in. Watford may claim a foul but what a finish from Sargent… it’s unbelievable as it’s behind him. The finish is out of this world.”
Play was suspended for 11 minutes owing to a floodlight failure but it was Sargent who sparked the game back into life, scoring a second with just over quarter of an hour remaining. McLean was involved again as he fed Rashica down the left, and his delivery was met by the leaping Sargent, planting the ball into the bottom corner.
Now was a time for cool heads, but Watford’s problems mounted when Dennis – already booked for a poor first-half challenge on Pierre Lees-Melou – was late on Aarons in front of referee Mike Dean leading to an inevitable red card.
There were 15 minutes of stoppage time as a result of the floodlight failure but when Sissoko’s acrobatic finish was ruled out for offside the home fans headed for the exits, resigned to their fate.
The volume of traffic seeking an escape intensified moments later when substitute Kucka diverted Idah’s low cross beyond Bachmann at his near post to complete a miserable night for Watford, with Norwich now believing survival is within their grasp.
Smith said afterwards: “For a long period of the game I was happy but I wasn’t happy in the final 15 minutes as with a man advantage we should have done better with the ball. But to get the win was the main thing today.
“Two games ago we were thinking it was between four of us, after getting six points in two games you can maybe look ahead and start grabbing others into the battle. Winning back to back games in the Premier League is a massive boost for everybody.”