Juan Mata’s late free-kick earned Manchester United a 1-0 home win over Watford on Wednesday, a fourth successive victory that lifted their hopes of Champions League qualification.
Mata struck seven minutes from the end against a Watford side who deserved at least a point and who missed a host of chances, with Odion Ighalo the biggest culprit.
United’s teenage striker Marcus Rashford was unable to keep up the remarkable form that had brought him four goals in his first two games at senior level.
But Louis van Gaal’s side still managed to grind out a victory that allowed them to close the gap on the Premier League’s top four, all of whom dropped points in the mid-week matches.
Van Gaal stuck with Rashford in attack, with the fit-again Anthony Martial returning wide on the right.
He gave another teenager a full debut at centre-back, as Tim Fosu-Mensah came in for Michael Carrick, with Chris Smalling still unavailable following a shoulder injury.
United’s vigour caused Watford early concern, with a panicked Jose Holebas slicing Daley Blind’s left-wing cross towards his own goalkeeper, and Martial misdirecting a free header wide after Ander Herrera’s cross found him at the far post.
Ighalo’s alertness provided a test for the home defence. Blind did well to deflect one effort past the post, and then was relieved to see the striker blast straight at goalkeeper David de Gea after giving the ball away 30 yards from goal.
Morgan Schneiderlin volleyed inches wide for United from just outside the penalty area, having connected sweetly with Troy Deeney’s headed clearance from a Mata free-kick.
In defence, Fosu-Mensah was having a testing time. One superb challenge on Ighalo was followed by a poor one on Etienne Capoue just outside the penalty area, for which the Dutch teenager was rightly booked.
– Prodl goes close -Moments later, Deeney beat Fosu-Mensah to flick on Capoue’s cross and Ighalo’s shot on the turn rolled inches wide with De Gea beaten.
By now, Watford should have been in front. Blind’s under-hit back-pass allowed Ighalo to run clear of Fosu-Mensah, and it was as well for the home side that De Gea stood up to make the block.
United’s back line was fraying at the edges. De Gea saved them again when Blind allowed Guillermo Varela’s pass to run through to Ighalo, who still could not find a way to score.
Watford have struggled for goals lately, but continued to threaten the home goal after half-time, with Capoue’s dipping shot from outside the penalty area just clearing the crossbar.
Centre-back Sebastian Prodl went even closer moments later, flicking Ben Watson’s corner goalwards at the near post, but De Gea blocked.
Fosu-Mensah was finding life tough against the quick feet of Ighalo, who latched on to another Deeney flick and turned inside the defender before steering a shot beyond the post.
United, though, rode that spell of pressure and regained a foothold in the match, as Rashford’s energetic run ended in a collision that left visiting goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes needing treatment.
Watford survived a couple of scares as Mata had two sights of goal after that, with one long-range shot beaten out theatrically by Gomes, while the Spain international steered another effort well wide from Herrera’s cut-back.
Prodl dived in to head just wide from another Watson corner as the visitors chased victory, and that miss proved costly as Mata provided the late decisive strike.