Mark Noble leads West Ham to top-half finish after win at 10-man Watford

As warm-ups for Wembley finals go, this was a pretty tortuous audition for Watford. With an end-of-season vibe in the stands, this was always going to be the sideshow to the main event of the FA Cup final next Saturday but 10-man Watford spectacularly imploded against a clinical West Ham to hand Manuel Pellegrini’s side a top-half finish at their expense.

Watford finished a history-making league campaign on a whimper – they have won only once since securing their place in the final – and Manchester City’s attacking armoury will be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of facing a defence that has not kept a clean sheet since February and was pulled from pillar to post by Michail Antonio.

Mark Noble started and finished the scoring here, with Marko Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini also on the scoresheet for West Ham, with Gerard Deulofeu’s goal ultimately immaterial. To make matters worse, Watford were reduced to 10 men after José Holebas was sent off for tugging at Antonio and will miss the final unless they succeed in their appeal to the FA.

“In my opinion I can’t believe one player will miss the final for that contact; I can’t believe it,” Javi Gracia said. “Maybe it is a foul, soft foul, light foul but I can be angry with that decision. In this moment it is difficult to accept knowing you have an important game next week. It wasn’t a foul. That contact with one player like Antonio, [if] it is a foul there are lot of fouls during the game.”

As for West Ham, they have other worries, such as whether Declan Rice will still be at the club next season. “It is impossible, I cannot know the future,” Pellegrini said. “It is a player, of course, who has had a brilliant season, who is 20 years old, who is an English player so he doesn’t use a space in any squad. So he has a lot of qualities: age and nationality, so maybe some of the big teams or all of them will want him. But that is one thing and the other is that, if he stays here or will go, I cannot say.”

José Holebas is shown a red card by referee Chris Kavanagh.
José Holebas is shown a red card by referee Chris Kavanagh. Photograph: Craig Brough/Action Images via Reuters

With all eyes on the final, a couple of murals have sprung up outside Vicarage Road to mark the occasion. One, adjacent to the Cornerstone Church opposite the ground, depicts a handful of the 30,000 expected supporters and Harry the Hornet making their way up Wembley Way; the other shows Heurelho Gomes and the Watford captain, Troy Deeney, celebrating under the national stadium’s famous arch.

Watford may have caught Cup fever but Gracia resisted the temptation to rest a raft of players and his side bossed the opening 15 minutes until Noble picked up a cute Antonio pass. As the Watford defence backed off, Noble surged forward, fooling Christian Kabasele on the edge of the area before coolly striking into the corner of Ben Foster’s goal.

West Ham were soon wheeling away in celebration once more. Antonio was again the catalyst, collecting a raking ball by Noble and bullying Will Hughes, Kiko Femenía and then Craig Cathcart on the edge of the area and rattling the crossbar. Lanzini simply prodded home the rebound.

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The brittleness of Watford’s defence may be a cause for concern but Gracia has few worries going forward. Deulofeu was excellent before being withdrawn on the hour mark, earning Watford a route back into an entertaining game 12 seconds after the restart. Zabaleta undercooked an attempted backpass for Fabianski and Deulofeu latched on to it, proceeding to nudge the ball beyond the exposed West Ham goalkeeper and poke home. That roused the hosts but they were incensed a couple of minutes later. Antonio charged on to a Felipe Anderson pass, Holebas clumsily clawed at the forward’s shoulder and, though it was soft, the referee, Chris Kavanagh, showed the Greek defender a straight red card.

It was not all doom and gloom for Watford – Cathcart did superbly to slide the ball away from Arnautovic – but West Ham were ruthless in the final third. When Ben Foster tipped an Anderson volley on to a post, it cannoned kindly into the path of Arnautovic who swept the ball home for his 10th goal of the season. Antonio caused havoc all afternoon and deserved a goal but he failed to beat Foster with a cheeky lob. Nevertheless, Noble still managed to round off the scoring from the penalty spot, sending Foster the wrong way after Femenía had fouled Antonio.