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Scott McTominay keeps his head to guide Manchester United past Watford

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Manchester United are into the fourth round courtesy of Scott McTominay’s early strike from a corner yet this was a stumbling outing, the high-paced game they like to play absent. Still, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was not overly concerned: in a hectic schedule it is solely about being in the hat for the draw and the manager’s thoughts now turn to Tuesday’s trip to Burnley. Win, or even take a point there, and United arrive at Liverpool next Sunday as Premier League leaders – a position Solskjær may not have dreamed of at the start of the season.

The manager was clear in heralding his captain-for-the-night’s performance. “Scott delivered and he always does,” Solskjær said. “He’s a leader and I thought today I’d give it to him to see how he reacts. He was brilliant. He should have scored a few more on set plays before now because he is a monster of a human being. I am very happy he got the goal.”

McTominay said: “I’ve been here since I had just turned five, so that’s 18 or 19 years associated with the club and it is a huge honour [to be captain]. I love this club and it has been my whole life.”

His game-winner came from an Alex Telles corner after only five minutes: McTominay headed into the ground, the ball bounced and spun away from Watford’s goalkeeper, Daniel Bachmann, and went in off the left post.

Poorer, though, was an errant McTominay ball that went straight to Ismaïla Sarr and allowed Watford’s record signing to race towards goal. Only his own slipshod pass allowed a defensive recovery.

The visitors were soon scrambling again when a cute Jesse Lingard chip found Donny van de Beek’s run, but the Dutchman was foiled by a desperate Watford rearguard. United appeared in control yet were handed a warning when Will Hughes’s free-kick was flicked to an unmarked Adam Masina: his attempt was cleared from near Dean Henderson’s line by Axel Tuanzebe.

Watford now enjoyed relative dominance, creating panic from United’s weakness: set pieces. A Hughes corner could not be cleared and in the ensuing scramble Marc Navarro, Philip Zinckernagel and Sarr all took aim, the latter’s shot hitting Eric Bailly’s hand, though no penalty was awarded.

Next came a Nathaniel Chalobah shot that had come because of Daniel James’s clumsy touch – an unwanted leitmotif of the winger’s game. As the interval neared, though, United sparked via a slick move as Mason Greenwood found Van de Beek, whose backheel then slid in Juan Mata. From close range, the Spaniard should have beaten Bachmann.

An injury to Bailly, who took an inadvertent Henderson knee, meant Harry Maguire replaced him just before half-time. “I think it was his neck,” Solskjær said. “I don’t think it was concussion so that is a positive but we have got to do scans.”

A 20-yard shot from Watford’s João Pedro was the second half’s first act. It went wide but here, again, the Championship side displayed teeth. James offered a riposte with a curler that forced a low Bachmann save yet the tie remained poised despite United’s lead, and the way Watford carried out Xisco Muñoz’s demand for a high press signalled they fancied drawing level.

Their belief was evident, too, in the way both Navarro then Sarr tried crosses: the latter’s landed on Andre Gray’s willing head, and Henderson was relieved to collect.

United were unable to keep Watford at arm’s length, a sliced clearance from Henderson that went lateral and out for a throw-in indicative of how they were losing their way. Solskjær said: “We started giving them the ball back easily and started to complicate it.”

When his team won a rare corner Mata flipped the ball to Greenwood, who had peeled away from the six-yard box, but his shot lacked venom. United lacked bite everywhere in attack, and so Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were called upon in place of James and Greenwood.

Watford’s answer was to claim two corners. The second, fired in by Ken Sema, was headed out by Rashford. Then Telles pushed over Pedro down the right, Sema’s free-kick was too high, yet United were holding on. A final scare came from a late corner but Maguire headed clear.

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Muñoz said: “We played a very good team but our team [still] had a perfect performance. I told the players they gave everything. It was our style – they played with high intensity. We have had a little time together but you can see I have improved the guys.”

Paul Pogba, Victor Lindelöf and Luke Shaw were all absent due to injury.

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