At a chilly, damp, echoey Stamford Bridge Chelsea had too much guile and craft for an eager but limited Watford team.
Goals from Olivier Giroud and Willian towards the end of the first half were enough to overwhelm opponents who spent much of the opening 80 minutes crouched behind a dogged defensive guard.
Watford ended the day a point above the bottom three, having played one game more than Aston Villa. They seem likely to stay in the Premier League, such is the level of organisation in Nigel Pearson’s team and the brittleness of those around them. But another blank here means Watford have scored twice in five winless games since that wonderfully-executed defeat of Liverpool.
As for Chelsea, this will feel like a successfully discharged training game, with Ross Barkley an urgent presence in midfield, and scorer of a third goal at the end.
At the start of play Manchester United had edged Frank Lampard’s team out of the top four for the first time since October. It has been a year in the job now for Chelsea’s legend-leader-manager, and despite the apparent good health of Chelsea’s season, there have been some gripes from the sidelines of late.
Chelsea have a problem defending set pieces. Chelsea have a problem with counterattacks. Chelsea have a coach-load of elite midfielders but no proper deep-lying shield (N’Golo Kanté remains the best outright tackling midfielder on the planet).
Here Lampard stationed Kanté and Ross Barkley as a hustling pivot, with Willian, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic a mobile trident behind the forward ballast of Giroud. And happily there are few things that can’t be put right by meeting an opponent of such limited ambition as Watford here.
Troy Deeney patrolled ahead of a five-man yellow-shirted midfield. But the early exchanges were all at the other end, as Watford sat in a deep double bolt and withstood some energetic but diffuse Chelsea pressure. Willian had the first real shot on target with 14 minutes gone.
Four minutes later a lovely, slick combination between Mount and Pulisic ended with Giroud shooting hard and low but into the legs of Ben Foster, whose positioning was beautifully judged. Otherwise this was a tight, slow-burn first quarter of attack versus defence.
The silence inside the stadium produced its usual revelations. Deeney really does spend a lot of time talking to, bonding with, and generally getting to know the linesman. Foster does a lot of shouting about metres and distances when the opposition has a free-kick near his goal. And Giroud’s agonised howl of pain on being fouled outside the box , a howl so loud you half expected to look up and see him holding his foot in one hand, was enough to draw an actual laugh from Frank Lampard.
It was Giroud who opened the scoring with 27 minutes gone. It came from a slick little passing exchange. Mount fed Barkley, who played another short forward pass to Giroud in a sliver of space down the side of Christian Kabasele. Giroud rotated his hips to wrong-foot Foster and shot before he could adjust, sending the ball trickling into the far corner.
Watford hadn’t switched on again from the drinks break. But it was still a lovely little piece of pass-and-move in a tight space. The goal was Giroud’s ninth touch and his fourth shot. He has three now in five games as the number-one No 9.
Watford roused themselves, Ismaïla Sarr making some ground down the right. But it was 2-0 three minutes before half time, the goal reward for more heavy Chelsea pressure. As Pulisic scurried across the right side of the box, heading away from goal, Étienne Capoue bumped him to the ground, an entirely needless foul. Willian put the kick away with ease, waiting for Foster to fall one way, then spanking it the other.
The second half brought much of the same, with the entire game condensed into one end of the pitch for long periods. Watford were committed and organised but they didn’t look like a team with any clear idea of how it hoped to score a goal. The loss of Gerard Deulofeu has stripped the midfield of invention. Here it took 73 minutes to muster a shot on target.
Up front Deeney was a vocal organiser, although at times his approach to the role brought to mind Brian Glover as the PE teacher in Kes: plenty of pointing and shouting, plenty of authority, but not really keeping pace with the striplings around him.
For Chelsea Kurt Zouma was sure-footed at the back He may lack an elegant way with a pass but he is this team’s best pure defender in that role.
Giroud almost made it three around the hour mark but was foiled by a fine close-range block from Foster. The Watford keeper then saved low down from Willian, who might as well take out an advert hoarding on Chelsea’s left touchline with the words ‚“cuts inside, shoots” for all the attention Premier League defences seem to pay to the fact that he tends to cut inside and shoot.
There was time for Ruben Loftus-Cheek to produce a stunning miss, heading over the bar unmarked in front of goal from Reece James’ cross. And at the death Barkley added a third, tucking the ball into the corner from César Azpilicueta’s cut-back. Lampard will take heart from the solidity of this performance after the horror of defeat at West Ham. For Watford, the season’s end looks like an extended struggle from here.