You can’t hurry Ederson. You can’t stop Kyle Walker brushing you aside. You can’t predict where David Silva is going to play his next pass. You can’t get the ball off Riyad Mahrez. You can’t mark Leroy Sane. You can’t get the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube, you can’t remember all your internet passwords, and ultimately, you can’t stop Manchester City from doing what they want to you.
Watford had a go, to their credit. On a chilly night at Vicarage Road, dusted by a light, relentless rain, they became the latest team to take on the toughest assignment in English football. They put in a decent effort. They prepared and trained thoroughly, ran themselves into the ground, carved out a couple of decent openings of their own, rode their luck a little. All it bought them was 40 minutes. That was the time it took Sane to put Manchester City 1-0 up, and from that point Watford seemed to be playing on a pitch tilting ever more inexorably towards them.
Yet they kept coming, even after Mahrez’s goal on 50 minutes seemed to kill them off. In the end, Abdoulaye Doucoure’s consolation five minutes from time was a fair reward for their efforts. They even managed to give the champions a few qualms in the closing stages, pouring forward in search of an unlikely equaliser. They will brood over Troy Deeney’s miss from eight yards in the first half, which at least threatened to put a novel complexion on the game.
Bernardo Silva in action for City (Getty Images)
And on the whole, Watford didn’t do a lot wrong. After all, City don’t necessarily need you to mess up. They’d obviously prefer it if you did, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Even at 0-0, there’s an ominous heft to Pep Guardiola’s side, the shape and the shadow of what you know they’re capable of, and what they know you know. There are 77 minutes left, infinite angles and infinite routes to goal. You can’t possibly cover them all.
By the time City took the lead, Watford had already died several deaths. Ben Foster was earning his match fee and then some, saving one-on-one from Sane, making a superb triple save to deny Mahrez, and then Sane, and then David Silva. They had repelled wave after wave. They had even enjoyed something approaching a decent spell of possession. But five minutes before the break, they failed to clear their lines, Mahrez clipped a delicious cross to the far post, and Sane nudged the ball past Foster not with his foot, or with his head, but with his chest. Pure, inexorable velvet.
Ben Foster put in a number of key saves for Watford (Getty Images)
Supporting City must feel terribly strange at the moment. After all, what are you there for? To help them to victory? They’re going to win with or without your help. To support your team? You may as well support the sun rising in the morning. Nevertheless, as the home crowd sat in chastened silence, the travelling fans seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and largely at the expense of Manchester United.
They roared when Mahrez smashed the ball home, emphatically finishing a neat little passing triangle between Silva and Sane and Gabriel Jesus. And though the result was largely secure, there were still 40 minutes to negotiate. Jesus, scenting the goal that would have rewarded his inexhaustible industry, missed two fine chances to make it 3-0 and send the Watford fans shuffling for the exits.
Instead, the home side produced a late flourish. Domingos Quina came on for a Premier League debut. Doucoure tried his luck from 18 yards. With five minutes left, Fabian Delph got a little casual at left-back, substitute Gerard Deulofeu surged to the right byline, Andre Gray had a stab, Doucoure had a stab, and at the third attempt eventually managed to bundle the ball – and Ederson – into the City net. And so for the last five minutes an illusory chaos reigned, as Watford gambled, lumped the ball forward, hoiked set-pieces into the penalty area, spun the wheel and pushed their luck. But that’s the thing about gambling: the house always wins in the end.