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Watford’s new season is off to a winning start after they demonstrated many of the qualities they will need if they are to have a successful Championship campaign to edge out Middlesbrough 1-0.
The Hornets got their season off to the ideal start in the 11th minute when a corner was played short to Ken Sema and he whipped in a fine cross from the left for Craig Cathcart to bullet a header home.
The home side had other opportunities after that; the impressive Joao Pedro going close from a corner. But while their possession-based approach offered promise, it also caused many of their problems as the ball was often carelessly and needlessly squandered and they were fortunate not to be punished on more than one occasion.
The Hornets found attacking opportunities much harder to come by after the break, but new head coach Vlaidmir Ivic will have liked some of the other qualities his side showed to ensure they started the season with three points – good organisation, plenty of effort and a willingness to dig in and battle when necessary.
Boro continued to have their chances, with arguably their best coming near the end when Assombalonga put a close-range header over the top as the home side kept a welcome clean sheet.
There was always going to be a new look as Watford set out on life back in the second tier, but it’s fair to say the team didn’t have quite the look most fans would have hoped for.
Jeremy Ngakia was the only debutant in a starting XI that, perhaps surprisingly, also featured Ken Sema, while there were some eyebrow-raising names on the bench, most notably Jerome Sinclair.
Pervis Estupinan and Stipe Perica were ruled out with ‘minor knocks’, Tom Dele-Bashiru had a thigh problem while Craig Dawson and Luiz Suarez were, according to the club, ill.
Middlesbrough had both their new additions in their line-up, Grant Hall and new goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli following his loan move from Fulham yesterday, and they were led for the first time by new captain and former Hornets striker Assombalonga.
The visitors started the better, but it was their opponents who created their first attacking moment of promise when a Domingos Quina pass inside allowed Nathaniel Chalobah to set Kiko Femenia away into space on the left. He in turn fed Sema, but the returning Udinese loanee rather ran into a cul-de-sac, although it did lead to his side winning the first of two corners in quick succession.
Buoyed by that, the Hornets looked to continue on the front foot and that positivity was to be rewarded from another corner in the 11th minute.
This time Quina rolled it short to Sema on the left, he whipped in an excellent cross and Cathcart redirected the power with his head past Bettinelli to score the Hornets’ first of the season and of the Ivic era.
Boro weren’t too far away from an instant replay when Ashley Fletcher was found on the right side of the area and he hit a cross-shot that was deflected across goal and wide of Ben Foster’s far post.
The goal had settled the Hornets though, and their possession-based approach started to yield more opportunities; Joao Pedro turning Djed Spence tight to the left touchline before accelerating inside towards the edge of the 18-yard box where he hit a right-footed shot which Bettinelli dropped to hold.
It was the visitors who were to have the next opportunity when Cathcart lost possession to Marvin Johnson and he slipped in Assombalonga on the left side of the box, but the striker’s low drive was kept out by the legs of Foster.
Ngakia was then called upon to make a smart interception in the heart of his penalty area, but the former West Ham United defender was soon involved at the other end, playing in a low cross from the right which Joao Pedro hit on the turn to see his shot deflected wide.
The Brazilian was to go even closer with his next effort which stemmed from some welcome originality at a set piece.
Quina drove in a corner from the right and the Watford players in the box mostly stood their ground, all bar the young striker who span off into space to give himself a free header which he put not too far wide.
The visitors were doing their best to get back on terms and on more than one occasion Watford were stretched at the back, but they were able to hold firm, although at times this had an element of good fortune about it.
Jonny Howson fired a 25-yard effort wide in first-half injury time, but the Hornets went into their first break of the season a goal to the good.
Ivic’s side started the second period positively, with Joao Pedro continuing his impressive full league debut with a good turn and run before he almost played in Ngakia, only for the wing-back’s touch to let him down when he threatened to break through on goal.
It was the visitors who had the first effort though, when Assombalonga spun away from his man before hitting a right-footed shot from the edge of the box which a diving Foster turned behind.
Boro continued to ask the questions, with Djed Spence becoming a growing influence on proceedings from his right wing-back berth.
The visitors had another opportunity in the 62nd minute when Chalobah tugged back Marcus Tavernier around 25 yards out. Assombalonga eventually took the set piece with a right-footed curling effort, but it was central and a nice height for Foster to help over the bar.
The danger wasn’t over as from the resultant corner from the right, Hall got in front of his man but was unable to keep his effort on goal down.
That stoppage in play saw Glenn Murray come on for his Hornets debut as a 66th-minute replacement for Sema.
The pressure continued towards the Hornets goal, with Spence slicing a shot wide following a deep free-kick from the left.
Ivic made his second change in the 75th minute as Femenia made way for another returning loanee, Marc Navarro.
Lewis Wing replaced George Saville a couple of minutes later, but Neil Warnock’s side looked as if they might start to be running out of ideas against the Hornets’ organised and disciplined defensive ranks.
However, they were given another promising situation with five minutes of normal time remaining when Ben Wilmot picked up the game’s first yellow card for pulling back Assombalonga.
The punishment was almost much worse as the free-kick was whipped in at pace from the right and Assombalonga put a good heading opportunity over the top.
Daniel Phillips came on for his Watford debut in the last minute of normal time in place of Quina and his side safely navigated four minutes of stoppage time to start the season with three points.
Watford: Foster; Cathcart, Kabsele, Wilmot; Ngakia, Chalobah, Cleverley, Femenia (Navarro 75); Sema (Murray 66), Quina (Phillips 90); Joao Pedro. Substitutes: Bachmann, Sierralta, Pussetto, Sinclair.
Middlesbrough: Bettinelli; Dijksteel, Hall, McNair; Spence, Howson, Saville (Wing 77), Johnson; Tavernier; Fletcher, Assombalonga. Substitutes: Pears, Fry, Browne, Wood, Bola, Coulson.
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