Watford show powers of resolve to prevail at Middlesbrough as pressure builds on Aitor Karanka

Richard Jolly offers his thoughts on Watford's narrow victory over Middlesbrough.

Jose Holebas, right, celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game in Watford's 1-0 victory against Middlesbrough. Alex Livesey / Getty Images
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Middlesbrough 0 Watford 1

Watford: Holebas 54'

Man of the Match: Jose Holebas (Watford)

Watford had won two games under Walter Mazzarri, in a style and with scorelines that their supporters are likely to remember for years. Their third triumph in the Italian’s reign was eminently forgettable, offering a dullness that contrasted with the earlier drama, but it was equally valuable.

They find themselves in the top half, while only goal difference keeps Middlesbrough out of the bottom three. Jose Holebas’s swerving winner was a goal out of keeping with the contest, but Watford could take solace in their solidity. It yielded their first clean sheet under Mazzarri. It proved that, after coming from two goals down to beat West Ham United 4-2 and then securing an emphatic first victory over Manchester United in three decades, they can win in different ways.

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Watford took three points on Teesside with professional grit, but their path for victory could have been eased. Already booked for fouling Isaac Success, Antonio Barragan ought to have been dismissed after half an hour for tugging back the Watford winger. Referee Roger East displayed unnecessary leniency and afforded the Middlesbrough rightback a reprieve.

Watford exacted a different form of revenge. With Boro perhaps distracted by Success’s unsuccessful appeals for a penalty, Holebas nipped ahead of Cristhian Stuani to win the ball and arced a shot past Victor Valdes. It was the Greek wingback’s second goal of an increasingly productive season.

Mazzarri has employed the 3-4-2-1 system that his fellow Italian, Antonio Conte, has adopted at Chelsea. Holebas is a beneficiary, granted a more advanced role which suits a player whose defending has often been questioned.

The influential Success was introduced, too, offering speed and skill after being granted a first league start as the out-of-form Odion Ighalo was omitted. It was another decision that was justified, underlining Mazzarri’s astuteness.

While Watford were criticised for parting company with the much-admired Quique Sanchez Flores after a single, fine season, the Spaniard is not being missed.

A Spaniard who stayed is increasingly troubled. Middlesbrough were booed off and their manager Aitor Karanka has not tasted victory at the Riverside Stadium since April. His only win of any kind this season came against Sunderland and a struggle to score is becoming a constant.

Middlesbrough only mustered 63 goals in 46 games even when winning automatic promotion last season. Their ratio has dipped further this season, with just seven in eight games. They have long seemed a team who are less than the sum of their attacking parts. Ostensibly their most incisive players, Alvaro Negredo and Gaston Ramirez, had been dropped for the trip to West Ham. Each was restored but without making the required impact. Jordan Rhodes, scorer of 167 goals in the lower leagues but none in the top flight, was only granted a late cameo.

Before then, Boro had a couple of optimistic penalty appeals, when Negredo and Calum Chambers went to ground, but few clear-cut opportunities. Stewart Downing and Stuani missed the target but theirs was a sterile display.

Their response to trailing was as negligible as Watford’s resolve was commendable.

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