Stoke allowed Watford to grab a priceless away win after two goals in five minutes at the bet365 Stadium.
The Potters headed into the tie without a win in six, and off the back of an enthralling 3-3 draw away at Rotherham in midweek. Michael O’Neill handed January signing Jack Clarke his first start for Stoke, and first in any competitive game since February 2019.
The Stoke boss made four other changes to his last starting XI, with Chester, Clucas, Allen and McClean also coming in for Batth, Cousins, Thompson and Matondo. Welsh international Chester was back from a one game ban after his red card against Blackburn.
Stoke had made their fourth signing of the window earlier in the day, with winger Alfie Doughty joining the club from Charlton Athletic.
😁 Welcoming Alfie Doughty to Stoke City!— Stoke City FC (@stokecity) January 22, 2021
The winger joins the Club on a permanent deal.#SCFC 🔴⚪️
Watford’s form had improved in the previous week after two wins in two against Huddersfield and Barnsley. However, recently appointed Xisco Munoz was still looking for his first away win as Watford manager.
The Hornets had picked up just two away wins all season, and were looking to make it three in front of the Sky cameras.
Munoz made two changes to his side, as Chalobah and Pedro came in for Sema and Gray.
The return fixture had been marred by refereeing controversy after Watford’s Joao Pedro had fouled Stoke ‘keeper Gunn whilst bundling the ball over the line, in what turned out to be a game changing decision as the Hornets eventually won that game 3-2.
The opening minutes saw neither team carve out a chance of note, but Stoke started the brighter of the two with encouraging attacking play.
Jack Clarke was getting on the ball with intent on his first start for the club, and Stoke kept dominating the ball but were still yet to test Bachmann after a quarter of an hour.
The first booking of the night went to Watford’s Sierralta as he scythed down Powell, just as the forward had looked to thread Clucas through.
Watford’s defence was proving tough for the Potters forwards to break down, and the visitors were starting to show signs of promise themselves in attack with half an hour gone.
Nathaniel Chalobah fashioned the away side’s first opening after he had wandered into the box unmarked, but his shot was parried away by Bursik.
The resulting corner brought about claims of a penalty by the away side, as Rhys Norrington-Davies looked to have impeded Masina when the ball was in the air. Referee Langford saw nothing in it though, and play continued.
Stoke’s best chance came just minutes later when McClean’s free kick was flicked goalwards, but Clucas’ shot went just over the bar.
It was clear that Watford’s game plan was not to allow Powell much time on the ball, with Stoke’s leading goalscorer being fouled four separate times in the first half.
The half time whistle came with Stoke in the ascendancy, but Michael O’Neill’s men had been unable to find a breakthrough in the first 45.
Half Time: Stoke City 0-0 Watford
The Stoke manager would be the happier of the two with the first period; his side had been confident in possession but had just lacked a cutting edge in front of goal.
He would have no qualms in calling upon bench players such as Fletcher, Matondo and Brown to change the game if need be.
Despite the home side having 60% of the possession, Watford had still had chances of their own in the first period.
Xisco Munoz would need his team to take the game to Stoke more in the second half, after his players had seemed largely passive off the ball so far.
Just a minute into the action and Stoke thought they would need to call on their substitutes immediately, after Deeney accidentally stood on Norrington-Davies.
However, the left back was able to carry on after receiving treatment and Jacob Brown sat back down on the Potters bench.
Stoke’s first chance of the half came after Powell had worked hard to find Allen surging into the box, but the Welshman’s shot was well beaten away by Bachmann.
It was the away side that found the breakthrough after 63 minutes, as some sloppy defending allowed Ismaila Sarr to run clear and draw a good save from Bursik. However, Joao Pedro was next to the ball and he drew a penalty on the rebound from the young goalkeeper.
Captain Troy Deeney was the taker, and he made no mistake to dispatch and give his side a valuable lead.
Just five minutes later and things worsened for the home side. Deeney turned provider this time, as he threaded through Sarr and the winger found the bottom left corner with a brilliant shot across Bursik on 68 minutes.
Two shots and two goals for the Hornets, and the game was effectively over.
The match had been flipped on its head within minutes, and Stoke would be kicking themselves that they had let two goals in so easily after looking the better side for the majority of the game.
With the match seemingly petering out on 83 minutes, the home side found a lifeline. A slick move found Fletcher, who played a one-two with Allen, then peeled off the defender and scuffed a shot past Bachmann to halve the deficit, with his first goal since November 7th.
Stoke now pushed for the equaliser that they felt they deserved from the game, and were still searching as the game creeped into six added minutes.
Nick Powell blazed a great opportunity over the bar on 92 minutes after Matondo had found him in the box. The miss summed up the 26 year-old’s night in front of goal.
The home side’s last attempt at a leveller came as Souttar glanced a header wide with just seconds left. The final whistle came just moments later.
Full Time: Stoke City 1-2 Watford
Stoke’s worrying winless run continued, and it was once again down to their own lacklustre performance in front of goal.
Whilst the Potters had looked confident and energetic in the first half, they then allowed Watford a slight look in at the start of the second period, and the away side had the quality to dispatch of their opponents in five minutes of madness.
Michael O’Neill should hold his hands up after he had waited too long to make a change, and the game had already got away from his side when he eventually did.
Michael O'Neill offers his thoughts following this evening's defeat against Watford.— Stoke City FC (@stokecity) January 22, 2021
Watch the interview on YouTube.#SCFC 🔴⚪️
It had been a well-managed game from Watford’s perspective, after they had weathered the first half storm and then pounced on tired Stoke legs in the second period.
Xisco Munoz will still want more from his players as the weeks go on if they are to mount a challenge on the top two, as they certainly have the quality to do so.
Stoke remain in eighth with all teams below with games in hand, whilst Watford move up to third.
The Potters go to Huddersfield next, whilst Watford travel to Millwall.
Match report by Oliver Walton.