If this was a portent for life after Jack Grealish, then Aston Villa could be in for a very long season. A scintillating first-half performance from Ismaïla Sarr on the day that tributes were paid by both clubs to Graham Taylor provided the perfect start to life in the Premier League for Watford’s manager, Xisco Muñoz, and a sense of foreboding for his opposite number, Dean Smith.
A mural depicting the man who managed both these sides so successfully had been unveiled outside Vicarage Road 24 hours before kick-off, with members of his family watching on from the stand that now proudly bears his name. Yet while it was the club that Taylor led to runners-up in his final season before succeeding Bobby Robson with England who came into this opening-day encounter as the clear favourites, it was Watford who rose to the occasion. In particular Sarr – who was the subject of a failed loan bid from Manchester United in January – seemed in a hurry to make up for lost time after starring in Watford’s promotion campaign.
Having been mercilessly mocked by the Villa fans behind the goal when his volley sailed way off target inside the opening two minutes, the Senegal forward soon had his revenge when his cross picked out Emmanuel Dennis inside the area. His shot was initially blocked by Ezri Konsa but the striker who joined from Club Brugge in the summer made no mistake with the rebound, with no one looking happier than Muñoz as he cavorted down the touchline in celebration.
Villa’s summer of change in the wake of Grealish’s record-breaking £100m departure to Manchester City meant debuts for Danny Ings, Emiliano Buendía and a return for Ashley Young against his former club after winning Serie A with Internazionale last season. In the absence of the injured Ollie Watkins after he failed a late fitness test, Smith’s side looked disjointed in attack but it was perhaps more surprising to see how they struggled to contain Sarr with the same personnel in a defence that was such a strong point last season.
It took a cruel deflection to take Sarr’s shot from a tight angle past the despairing dive of Emiliano Martínez just before the break, although it was no less than he and Watford deserved. “We lacked intensity – it was almost like we were playing a friendly game in the first half and Premier League games are not friendlies,” admitted Smith. “We gave ourselves a real mountain to climb.”
Matt Targett was withdrawn at half-time, no doubt feeling dizzy from dealing with Sarr as Young was handed the unenviable task of stopping his marauding runs. With half an hour to play, Smith threw on the former Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey in the hope of dragging his side back into the game but could only watch on as another substitute stole the show. The Colombian Cucho Hernández first joined Watford in 2017 and had yet to play a single minute for the club having spent the last three seasons on loan in Spain. But it took him less than a minute to announce himself after coming off the bench with a brilliant curling effort that went in off a post after beating Buendía to the ball.
“It was an amazing performance, the team was very hungry,” said a delighted Muñoz. “The new players have had a quick adaptation to our squad and that helps us make a strong start.” John McGinn’s excellent half-volley from Bailey’s cross soon after at least kept Villa in with a sniff of a comeback but an injury-time penalty from Ings after Bertrand Traoré had been fouled was far too little, too late.