LONDON – A late free kick by midfielder Juan Mata earned Manchester United a labored 1-0 home win over Watford after the visitors missed a flurry of chances in their Premier League clash on Wednesday.
The 27-year-old Spaniard curled a superb shot from 25 meters into the top right corner in the 83rd minute, much to the relief of his manager Louis van Gaal, whose decision to play two strikers almost backfired.
“It was a good night for us but we have to keep going,” Mata told reporters.
“We didn’t feel comfortable, but in the end we won and I am happy I scored a good goal.
“We are Manchester United, we don’t give up and we have to keep going until the end.”
The result put fifth-placed United level on points with cross-town rivals City, who are fourth and have a game in hand after losing 3-0 at Liverpool.
An array of forwards in the starting line-up left United’s central midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera with too much to do while also giving Watford space to exploit.
Fit-again Anthony Martial was deployed up front alongside 18-year-old Marcus Rashford, who made a dream start to his United career by scoring four goals in two games, but the pair looked toothless.
Watford’s Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo missed three gilt-edged chances in the first half and Austrian defender Sebastian Proedl had a header cleared off the line by Rashford before United sprung to life.
Several darting runs by Rashford down the right flank swung the balance and keeper Heurelio Gomez saved two stinging shots by Mata before United’s playmaker finally broke the deadlock.
“I have to give a lot of compliments to my players because when it’s a physical game and you can win in an important moment, because all our competitors are losing, it’s very important,” United manager Louis Van Gaal said.
Asked whether switching Rashford to the right flank and Martial into the middle was crucial, he said: “Yes, I think that was the better change.
“Anthony Martial was not in the match, Rashford was not in the match, so I changed them and they were both in the match again.”