Boxing Day blow for City at Watford
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's five-game winning streak came to an end with a 1-0 defeat at Watford.
The Hornets led at the break thanks to a close-range strike from £30million winger Ismaila Sarr and despite dominating possession, it was the hosts who had the better chances, as two of the teams relegated from the Premier League battled at Vicarage Road
Fortunately however, the leaders were in a position where a loss wouldn't cause too much damage, as they slipped to just a second defeat in 17 matches and remained four points clear at the top of the Championship table.
Kieran Dowell was the only change to City's starting line-up, replacing Mario Vrancic in attacking midfield for his first start since ankle surgery in September, with left-back Xavi Quintilla and central defender Ben Gibson also back on the bench.
That meant Daniel Farke was able to field the potentially exciting combination of Dowell, Emi Buendia, Todd Cantwell and Teemu Pukki together for the first time in a competitive fixture.
New Watford boss Xisco Munoz made three changes to the Watford team, a 40-year-old former Valencia winger with limited experience brought in to replace Valdimir Ivic having recently led Dinamo Tiblisi to the 2020 title in Georgia.
The Hornets started the game sixth after making a solid start to the season but drawing too many matches, with Munoz bringing skipper Troy Deeney back into his starting XI as he made three changes and switched to a 4-4-2 formation.
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With the winds of Storm Bella swirling around an almost empty Vicarage Road, the Canaries were wearing their petrol blue away kit for the first time since their 1-1 draw at Brentford in October.
The Championship leaders were assured of top spot at the end of Boxing Day, sitting four points clear of second-placed Swansea ahead of the televised encounter, with the Swans having won 2-0 at QPR earlier in the day and Bournemouth's home game against Millwall postponed.
The first half proved a battle of brains against brawn, with City dominating possession but lacking the final ball, with Max Aarons testing Ben Foster with a low shot early on.
A crucial tackle from Dowell was needed in the eighth minute to prevent a Tom Cleverley shot in the eighth minute, with Watford looking to hit the leaders on the counter-attack.
The Canaries' left side of Cantwell and Jacob Sorensen was looking vulnerable though and Senegal international Sarr played clean through on the right by Etienne Capoue five minutes later and his cross evading Deeney in the box, only for strike partner Andre Gray to smash against a supporting pole next to the goal - with the ball rippling the net to briefly give the home bench belief of a goal.
Foster held a low Kenny McLean free-kick and the Scot also drifted a frustrated shot over as possession continued to bring limited results.
The opener came after Aarons had lost possession in attack though, with the Hornets breaking and Ken Sema's loss cross seeming to catch out Michael McGovern and Sarr getting across Sorensen to prod into an unguarded net.
It was the kind of poor concession that City fans haven't seen much of from Farke's team this season, with Gray also swiping a shot over before the break after Sarr and right-back Kiko Femenia had surged past Cantwell and Sorensen too easily.
A lung-busting run from Oliver Skipp was wasted by an isolated Teemu Pukki and Dowell also drove a frustrated 20-yard shot over as the half finished 1-0 to Watford, with new manager Munoz bouncing around as he issued his energetic instructions from the sidelines.
It was only the second time Norwich had been trailing at the break in 14 matches, both when wearing their alternative kits, during the 1-1 draw at Brentford and the 3-1 defeat at Luton - the only defeat in the previous 16 matches.
The Hornets came out and pressed their opponents much higher up the pitch, with Cantwell shaking a shot well wide from a Dowell cross in the 56th minute.
There was a let-off soon after as an increasingly ragged McGovern played Skipp into pressure at the back and the Tottenham loanee's pass went straight to Sarr, only for Skipp to put enough pressure on Gray in the box to prevent him pulling the trigger.
Just before the hour mark McGovern was relieved to see his parry of a Sarr cross from the left deflect off Christoph Zimmermann to evade the waiting Deeney near the penalty spot.
A Sarr shot was deflected wide by Skipp and after a succession of Watford corners were survived, Farke made his move, with a triple change.
City switched to a 3-5-2 shape, with Skipp moved to left wing-back as Ben Gibson, Mario Vrancic and Jordan Hugill replaced Dowell, Cantwell and Sorensen.
Hugill's good work in the air allowed Buendia to test Foster with a low drive from 25 yards in the 73rd minute, with the keeper holding the ball.
The changes did bring more attacking energy and City were furious not to get a penalty in the 82nd minute, with replays showing Pukki was taken down by substitute Adam Masina as he was about to convert a cleverly disguised pass from Vrancic, although the defender perhaps got a toe to the ball as well.
Soon after and Zimmermann was in trouble but managed to hold off Stipe Perica, before Farke made his final changes and brought Lukas Rupp and Josh Martin on for Zimmermann and McLean.
Five minutes were added on but Watford absorbed the pressure well, with Buendia seeing a shot skew wide after Pukki had powered a cross in from the right before the final whistle greeted huge celebrations from the hosts - led by their new boss.
Next up for City are two homes games, against QPR on Tuesday (7.45pm) and Barnsley on Saturday (3pm).
WATFORD (4-4-2): Foster; Femenia (Navarro 86), Sierralta, Wilmot, Ngakia (Masina 69); Sarr, Capoue (Chalobah 86), Cleverley (Hughes 74), Sema; Deeney (C), Gray (Perica 74). Unused subs: Bachmann (GK), Garner, Hungob, Crichlow
Booked: Capoue (foul on Buendia, 18), Hughes (preventing free-kick, 87)
Goals: Sarr (29)
NORWICH (4-2-3-1): McGovern; Aarons, Zimmermann (Martin 87), Hanley (C), Sorensen (Gibson 67); Skipp, McLean (Rupp 87); Buendia, Dowell (Vrancic 67), Cantwell (Hugill 67); Pukki. Unused subs: Barden (GK), Quintilla, Tettey, Omotoye
REFEREE: John Brooks (Leicestershire)