With a quarter of their rather mundane season left, Manchester United stand on the brink of unexpected achievement. If they show any kind of consistency, appetite or gumption over the next couple of months then a place in the Champions League could be theirs.
United have not looked like a Champions League team for much of this campaign. Even their better moments have been so fleeting as to disappear from memory almost immediately.
But now, a combination of a successive victories and the enduring frailties of others, have left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team standing squarely in front of unexpected opportunity and it would appear the next four games may go a long way to telling us whether they really are capable.
Bruno Fernandes netted the opener from the penalty spot in Manchester United's victory against Watford at Old Trafford
The Portuguese star burst into the penalty area on 42 minutes but was felled by the onrushing Watford stopper Ben Foster
Fernandes coolly converted from 12 yards after the midfielder's jump during his run-up sent Foster diving the wrong way
A win at Chelsea last Monday followed by a performance here that grew better the longer it went on have left United in fifth, just three points off what is admittedly a rather slovenly pace. Up next are games against Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham and Sheffield United. Four games to make or break a season? It pretty much looks that way.
Here, Solskjaer’s team were slow to start but finished rather well. He will hope it is a metaphor for the season. This is a United team more suited to playing on the counter attack – new signing Bruno Fernandes has certainly helped with that – and once they had the lead against a Watford side that was competitive for an hour, they grew in confidence and looked genuinely dangerous.
It was Fernandes who gave United the lead after Ben Foster had brought him down to concede a penalty in the 40th minute. Then, after what looked like a Watford equaliser was ruled out on the say-so of VAR early in the second half, United stretched their advantage through Anthony Martial and young Mason Greenwood.
The second half goals were easy on the eye as was the sight of Fernandes and man of the match Daniel James running directly and regularly at the Watford defence from deep positions. United look dangerous when they attack like that – turning worried defenders on their heels – and it is something Solskjaer must try and harness between now and May.
Conversely, it is unusual these days for United to start a game well. Solskjaer’s team tend to be slow out of the traps. That was how it was here. On a blustery day, they played with no particular intensity or tempo early on and that, among other things, allowed Watford to settle and play their part.
Anthony Martial doubled United's lead with a lofted finish after the Frenchman's initial effort had been smothered by Foster
The striker kept his composure to finish from a tight angle after Fernandes' incisive ball carved open Watford's back line
Mason Greenwood wrapped up the points for the hosts after thundering home an effort from the edge of the penalty area
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Lindelof 6, Maguire 6, Shaw 6; Matic 6, Fred 6 (McTominay 78mins); Greenwood 7 (Chong 78mins 6), Fernandes 7.5, James 8; Martial 6.5 (Ighalo 78mins 6). Not used: Romero, Bailly, Mata, Williams.
Goals: Fernandes pen 40, Martial 59, Greenwood 74
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 6.5
Watford (4-2-3-1): Foster 5.5; Dawson 5.5, Kabasele 6, Cathcart 6; Masina 6; Hughes 6, Capoue 6; Pereyra 5.5 (Sarr 68mins) 6, Doucoure 6.5, Deulofeu 6; Deeney 6 (Welbeck 75mins 6). Not used: Gomes, Mariappa, Cleverley, Chalobah, Gray.
Manager: Nigel Pearson 6
Referee: Martin Atkinson 56
Man of the match: Daniel James
Attendance: 73, 347
Indeed, the first chance fell to the visiting team. Nemanja Matic and Harry Maguire got in a tangle just outside their own penalty are and when the ball broke, Troy Deeney looked as though he may get a shot off. He would have done, too, had Luke Shaw not read the situation so well and scampered across from left-back to block.
That should have served as a warning to United. Watford do not play like a bottom three side under Nigel Pearson and had clearly come to Old Trafford to engage.