Odion Ighalo strike earns deserved win for Watford at Sunderland
Odion Ighalo's 10th goal of the season handed promoted Watford a third successive Barclays Premier League victory and plunged Sunderland deeper into relegation trouble.
The Nigerian's fourth-minute strike proved enough to clinch all the points in a 1-0 win at a wintry Stadium of Light as the visitors launched an early blitz and then defended their lead with little difficulty to claim their seventh top-flight win of the campaign.
Sam Allardyce's men at least made a game of it after a dreadful start with substitute Jermain Defoe seeing a strike correctly ruled out for offside and forcing a fine late save from goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, but the visitors were the better side and were worthy winners.
Allardyce has built his new-look Sunderland team on defensive solidity and the ploy has proved largely successful in recent weeks with a back three having given Black Cats goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon welcome protection.
However, he had to rip his plan up within 19 minutes as Watford tore into Sunderland with relish, with Ighalo, Troy Deeney and Almen Abdi in rampant mood.
The visitors took the lead when full-back Allan Nyom combined with Abdi down the right for the latter to slide the ball in to Ighalo, whose sliding effort might have clipped defender Sebastian Coates as it rolled past the stranded Pantilimon.
Had Billy Jones not been in the right place at the right time five minutes later, Abdi might have made it 2-0 from Nathan Ake's cross, and his side was desperately fortunate to escape further mishap with 11 minutes on the clock.
Ighalo brilliantly tricked his way past John O'Shea, making his 400th Barclays Premier League appearance, only to see Pantilimon block his initial effort and Coates his follow-up before Abdi's strike was repelled and Jose Manuel Jurado rattled the post from the rebound.
Fabio Borini could have levelled after running on to Yann M'Vila's 17th-minute pass, but shot inches wide of the far post.
Allardyce simply had to act and he did so with 19 minutes gone, replacing wing-back DeAndre Yedlin with midfielder Jack Rodwell and switching from 3-5-2 to 4-2-3-1.
The change eventually paid dividends as the Black Cats gradually forced their way into the game, although not before Pantilimon had to palm away Etienne Capoue's 26th-minute effort.
Borini sent a half-volleyed attempt wide after Gomes had needlessly palmed an M'Vila corner straight to his feet, but the keeper redeemed himself with a good reaction save after M'Vila's 44th-minute free-kick skidded off defender Miguel Britos' head and sped towards his own goal.
The home side started the second half in much better fashion than they had the first with defender Craig Cathcart throwing himself into the path of Steven Fletcher's shot and Gomes parrying another from Rodwell in quick succession.
Duncan Watmore sent a rasping drive just wide with 13 minutes remaining, but Defoe saw an 82nd-minute snap-shot brilliantly saved by Gomes and then failed to make meaningful contact with Patrick van Aanholt's cross in front of goal two minutes later with Ighalo having passed up three glorious opportunities.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
"3 straight wins for @WatfordFC and they are 7th at the moment. Progressing very nicely!" - Match of the Day 2 present Mark Chapman (@markchapman) is impressed by Watford recent form in the Premier League
Costel Pantilimon: 6 (Out of 10)
DeAndre Yedlin (Rodwell, 19 mins): 5
Sebastian Coates: 7
John O'Shea (Capt): 6
Billy Jones: 6
Patrick van Aanholt: 6
Yann M'Vila: 8
Ola Toivonen: 5
Fabio Borini (Johnson, 57 mins): 5
Steven Fletcher (Defoe, 71 mins): 7
Duncan Watmore: 6
Jack Rodwell: 7
Adam Johnson: 6
Jermain Defoe: 7
Heurelho Gomes: 6
Allan Nyom: 7
Miguel Britos: 6
Jose Manuel Jurado (Anya, 76 mins): 6
Troy Deeney (Capt): 6
Craig Cathcart: 6
Nathan Ake: 7
Almen Abdi (Guedioura, 69 mins): 8
Ben Watson: 6
Odion Ighalo: 7
Etienne Capoue: 7
Adlene Guedioura: 6
Ikechi Anya: 6
Almen Abdi: proved too hot for Sunderland to handle as he linked with Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo and tormented Patrick van Aanholt until he was replaced by Adlene Guedioura.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Watford keeper Heurelho Gomes produced a save of genuine quality to deny substitute Jermain Defoe an 82nd-minute equaliser, diving to his right to palm the ball around the post.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
Sam Allardyce will have been horrified with how his side started the game, prompting an early tactical reshuffle, but relatively pleased with how they finished it. By Contrast, Quique Sanchez Flores will have been delighted with Watford's opening half-hour and much of what followed, although he will wonder quite how Ighalo managed not to convert any of three one-on-one chances late on.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
Gomes kept a clean sheet and made a couple of important saves, but his decision to punch, rather than catch corners put his side under pressure on more than one occasion.
WHO'S UP NEXT
Chelsea v Sunderland (Barclays Premier League, Saturday 19 December)
Watford v Liverpool (Barclays Premier League, Saturday 19 December)