On the half-time whistle, the jeers came in earnest. Chelsea were goalless, toothless and staring down the barrel of a nerve-shredding week in which their Champions League hopes would dangle by a thread.
For Maurizio Sarri, it has been this sort of season. The supporters at Stamford Bridge turned on their manager some time ago but even the sceptical locals must now cut the Italian some slack.
After this victory, Chelsea remain locked in a battle for two Champions League places but they are now up to third, one point ahead of Tottenham, and further daylight separates them from Arsenal and Manchester United.
It may yet dramatically fall apart, if Chelsea lose their second-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt and then contrive to surrender at Leicester next weekend. Yet the outlook is promising. The most likely scenario now is surely for Sarri to guide his team back into Europe’s elite through a top four finish and reach two finals in his first season in English football. Indeed, three second-half goals to the good, Sarri’s mood even lifted to the extent he gave Gary Cahill, Chelsea’s departing stalwart, a rare runout and a farewell to the home support.
Not bad, then, for a manager who has spent much of the season teetering on the brink. His team do remain a riddle of contradictions, a side with glaring vulnerabilities but also a team capable of igniting the switch at a moment’s notice.
Indeed, many of the flaws in his side revealed themselves during a rather desperate opening period in which Watford were by far the superior side. Watford breathed down the necks of Chelsea’s sluggish midfielders Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, as Abdoulaye Doucoure dominated the central acres and Will Hughes snapped into challenges.
There was cause for concern, too, as N’Golo Kante departed through injury within the opening ten minutes.
Javi Gracia’s side created the clearest openings. In the absence of Antonio Rudiger, Chelsea were a featherweight presence at the back and Troy Deeney asserted his aerial qualities while strike partner Gerard Deuolfeu ran the channels and committed opponents.