League One strugglers Tranmere battled back from three goals down at Vicarage Road to take Premier League Watford to an FA Cup third round replay. The Hornets looked to be cruising at half-time. Expert finishes from Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nathaniel Chalobah and Roberto Pereyra had the home side 3-0 up, with Tranmere contributing to their own downfall. But the hosts took their eyes off the ball in the second half and Micky Mellon’s men punished them with two goals from set pieces and a penalty awarded by VAR turning the match on its head.
The scoring started in the 12th minute and was all too easy for the hosts. Watford had won their first corner of the match after Adam Masina’s cross was blocked by Jake Caprice, and they took it short. Roberto Pereyra played it to Domingos Quina who in turn found Nathaniel Chalobah who slipped the ball to Tom Dele-Bashiru who was loitering 25 yards from goal. There was no one marking the 20-year-old former Manchester City prospect and no one interested in closing him down neither. Dele Bashiru took note, took a succession of small touches and then curled a sweet shot inside the left-hand post.
Two minutes later and the lead was doubled by Chalobah. It was a little more fortunate in its genesis but no less decisive in the finish. Caprice had just prevented the ball going out for a corner off his heel and opted to find Peter Clarke with a pass inside his own box. That was fine, but Clarke’s next ball along the line was behind Manny Monthé and Tranmere were in trouble. Isaac Success jumped in to challenge for the ball and Monthé managed to poke it clear, but only in to the path of Chalobah, who knew exactly what he wanted to do. He drove across and through the ball with his left foot and found the same side of the net as his teammate.
Tranmere then tried to impose themselves a little more and served up a couple of crosses for their frontmen. Watford held firm under the direct play, however, and in the 34th minute trebled their advantage. Success was involved again, bursting clear in the middle of the park and playing an excellent, sharp through ball to the lone striker Andre Gray. Gray dithered at first and lost the shooting opportunity. He then cut outside of Clarke with a touch that was too heavy, but Pereyra was on hand to gobble it up and hit another expert finish into the left-hand corner.
Both teams made changes at half-time. Tranmere switched from a back three to a more familiar back four and brought on the forward Corey Blackett-Taylor for Stefan Payne. Watford removed the in-form Chalobah for the 18-year-old Brazilian João Pedro, who only joined the club on New Year’s Day.
Tranmere pulled the first goal back just after the hour, the playmaker Dale Jennings heading in from a Blackett-Taylor corner. The goal was initially ruled out by referee Graham Scott, who adjudged Tranmere’s key man to have drifted offside. VAR is in action in the FA Cup, however, and it overturned the decision after a check. Vicarage Road echoed to Tranmere fans singing lustily in praise of the maligned technology.
Jennings was denied by Watford’s debutant goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann a minute later, his cheeky backheel flick turned over the bar. But in the 78th minute Tranmere won another corner and Blackett-Taylor this time drove it deep and over the grasping hands of Bachmann. Caprice got a shot off at the back post which was blocked, but it fell to the previously unfortunate Monthé who slammed into the back of the net.
It was game on and when Blackett-Taylor went flying past another teenage Watford substitute, Mason Barrett, the home fans’ hearts were in their mouths. Barrett went in for the sliding challenge and the ball went behind, with Scott awarding a corner. But VAR checked for a penalty and found the error decidedly clear, Barrett got the ball, not the man. Paul Mullin stepped up and equalised in decisive fashion.
In the final minutes there was still time for Roberto Pereyra to be sent off, Watford to put a dangerous free-kick just over the bar and Tranmere to once more cause havoc in the Watford box. But a draw was the final score, and Watford must will head for Prenton Park and an unlikely replay.