Manchester United 1 Watford 0: Louis van Gaal perhaps had a point earlier this week when he warned Marcus Rashford the hard work is only just beginning.

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Slog for Marcus Rashford but Juan Mata delivers for stretched Manchester United

Manchester United 1 Watford 0: Louis van Gaal perhaps had a point earlier this week when he warned Marcus Rashford the hard work is only just beginning.

Slog for Marcus Rashford but Juan Mata delivers for stretched Manchester United

After scoring twice on his senior debut against Midtjylland last week, and then twice more against Arsenal on Sunday, the teenage striker must learn to cope with being a marked man from now on. In that sense, a tough night against Watford may turn out to be most valuable lesson so far of a fledgling career.

As it turned out, Manchester United did not need Rashford’s goals this time. Van Gaal’s side may have been second best for most of the night, but they still secured a fourth successive victory. Juan Mata’s floated free-kick brought cheers of relief at the Stretford End. This will not go down as a classic United victory.

This was a slog for Rashford, and a test too for another 18-year-old in Tim Fosu-Mensah, given a senior debut at centre-back. But if they struggled, so too did more experienced team-mates. Van Gaal’s side were stretched to the limit by a Watford team who mixed a strong physical presence with deft passing and movement.

United’s defence, as a whole, had a torrid first-half, and desperately missed the calming influence of Chris Smalling, ruled not fit enough to return from a shoulder injury. Had Odion Ighalo been more clinical in front of goal, Watford could have been out of sight by half-time.

Ighalo’s ability to find space, allied to Troy Deeney’s muscle, caused plenty of unease for Fosu-Mensah and his centre-back Daley Blind. The teenager, in truth, had a mixed time of it. One perfectly-timed challenge on Ighalo won deserved applause, one poor tackle just outside the penalty area on Etienne Capoue earned a deserved booking.

Fosu-Mensah was treading a very fine disciplinary line indeed seven minutes before half-time as Marcos Rojo’s awful back pass left him as the last defender chasing Ighalo; fortunately for the youngster, a sliding challenge did not connect with the striker, and David De Gea positioned himself well to make the block.

Ighalo might have scored earlier, spinning to shoot just wide with De Gea flat-footed after Deeney had beaten Fosu-Mensah to glance on Capoue’s cross. He might have scored just before half-time too, running clear after Blind allowed Guillermo Varela’s back pass to roll through, but United were once again saved by their goalkeeper.

United has threatened in the first 20 minutes before fading, with a panicky Jose Holebas slicing a Blind cross towards his own goalkeeper, Anthony Martial heading wide when unmarked seven yards out and Morgan Schneiderlin meeting a Deeney headed clearance from a Mata free-kick with a sweet volley that just missed the post.

Those openings became a distant memory as Watford continued to look the more threatening side after half-time. Capoue hit a 25-yard shot that dipped just over the bar, Sebastian Prodl got a near-post flick to a Ben Watson corner that was blocked by a combination of De Gea and Rashford, and Ighalo turned Fosu-Mensah inside out before missing the target for what seemed the umpteenth time.

United regained a foothold midway through the second-half, and it was to Rashford’s credit he continued to pursue openings despite having so little to work with. One positive run down the right ended in a collision that left goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes needing treatment. It was the clearest signal possible that the teenager is not one to shirk a physical confrontation.

It sparked a flurry of pressure from the home side, which produced chances for Mata; the first of them was a long-range effort that Gomes beat out theatrically, the second was screwed wide from closer in following an Ander Herrera cut-back.

Watford came close twice as the match moved into its final 10 minutes. Substitute Nordin Amrabat’s shot looped over the bar via a Blind deflection as the United defence wobbled once more, and then Prodl somehow headed wide as he ploughed through a crowd of players to meet another Watson corner.

That miss, allied to Ighalo’s earlier profligacy, proved costly. Mata struck in the closing minutes, and Watford somehow went home with nothing.

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1):

De Gea 7; Varela 6, Blind 5, Fosu-Mensah 6, Rojo 5 (Darmian 70, 6); Schneiderlin 6, Herrera 6 (Lingard 77, 6); Martial 6, Mata 7 (McNair 89, 6), Memphis 5; Rashford 6.

WATFORD (4-3-2-1):

Gomes 6; Nyom 6, Prodl 6, Britos 6, Holebas 6; Watson 6, Behrami 7 (Anya 86, 6); Abdi 6 (Suarez 70, 6), Ighalo 6 (Amrabat 75, 6), Capoue 7; Deeney 7.

Substitutes:

Pantilimon, Paredes, Cathcart, Ake.

Referee:

Mike Jones (Chester).

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