Watford and Brighton played out a nervy 1-1 draw on the south coast on Saturday afternoon, as both sides put in below-par performances in a tense relegation six-pointer.
The Hornets took the lead on 19 minutes, when Abdoulaye Doucouré picked up a loose ball in the midfield and finished off a fine solo effort, rifling a vicious strike beyond Mathew Ryan. Nigel Pearson's men continued to dominate the first half, but the Seagulls did have a strong penalty appeal turned down by referee Kevin Friend.
Brighton struggled to create many attacking options throughout the match, but Graham Potter's men benefitted from a huge slice of fortune late in the second half, when Watford's Adrian Mariappa inexplicably turned a cross into his own net to level the scores.
The Seagulls pushed to clinch all three points in the final stages, but the Hornets held firm and went back to Vicarage Road with a share of the spoils.
Key Talking Point
When you're in the thick of a relegation dogfight, you need key decisions to go your way. So when Ezequiel Schelotto was seemingly impeded in the penalty area, the entire Amex Stadium held its collective breath. The Brighton defender dashed after a loose ball in the box and looked to be clipped by Gerard Deulofeu. The Italian full-back hit the deck. Cue thousands of simultaneous desperate screams.
But to no avail. The referee waved away the protests, and VAR did not reverse the decision. Deulofeu looked to have caught Schelotto's leg as he went to make contact with the ball, but replays were not convincing enough for the officials to change their mind. It was a key moment in what was definitely a must-win match for both sides at the start of play.
Fine margins, and all that.
Starting XI: Ryan (6), Schelotti (5), Dunk (6), Duffy (6), Burn (6), Propper (6), Mooy (5), Gross (5), Trossard (6), March (6), Murray (6).
Substitutes: Maupay (6), Alzate (5), Jahanbakhsh (7).
He may have only been on the pitch for 15 minutes, but Alireza Jahanbakhsh made the difference for Brighton on Saturday. The Seagulls were putting in a miserable display and seemed to be heading for another defeat, until the Iranian star entered the fray.
The winger came on with plenty of desire and determination to turn the game around, and it was his whipped cross that did just that. Admittedly, it required a calamitous error to gift Brighton a way back into the game, but without Jahanbakhsh's direct approach, the Seagulls would have sunk to defeat.
Key Talking Point
What on earth was Adrian Mariappa thinking?! Watford had put in an excellent and well-drilled display at the Amex Stadium, and having taken the lead early on, the Hornets rarely looked threatened by their hosts. But with just less than 15 minutes to play, the game turned on its head, in the most comical of circumstances.
Substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh received the ball on the right-hand side, and with very few options, he whipped a dangerous cross into the box. Unfortunately for the winger, there was no one waiting for the cross in the penalty area. That is, except for Watford defender Mariappa. Under absolutely no pressure whatsoever, the centre-back miscued a clearance straight into his own net beyond a baffled Ben Foster.
A penny for Pearson's thoughts.
Starting XI: Foster (6), Masina (6), Kabasele (7), Cathcart (7), Mariappa (4), Hughes (6), Capoue (6), Doucoure (8), Pereyra (7), Deulofeu (6), Deeney (6).
Substitutes: Pussetto (6), Welbeck (N/A).
How good is it to see this man back at his best? Abdoulaye Doucoure attracted the attention of Europe's elite with his dominant displays last season, but he has been very subdued in a struggling Watford team this year. But the Frenchman's return to form has coincided nicely with the Hornets' sudden revival, and he is excelling at the heart of their midfield.
Doucoure is a real box-to-box midfielder, and he demonstrated his versatile abilities with the game's opening goal. The 27-year-old won the ball in the centre of the pitch, burst forward, ducked inside and then unleashed an unstoppable strike which flew into the net. It was the key moment which unlocked the match, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to bag all three points.
A quality player.
Brighton follow up their clash against Watford with a tough trip to high-flying Sheffield United at the end of the Premier League pause.
Watford will be desperate to climb away from the relegation zone when they welcome Manchester United to Vicarage Road on February 23.