Manchester City’s nervous finish in an otherwise comfortable win at Watford showed “you can never relax in the Premier League”, according to manager Pep Guardiola.
The reigning champions had controlled Tuesday’s game and led through goals from Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez but Abdoulaye Doucoure scrambled in for Watford in the 85th minute to give the hosts hope of an unlikely comeback.
Watford sent goalkeeper Ben Foster forward for set-pieces in a frantic finish, with Guardiola introducing defensive reinforcements to deal with the pressure, but the visitors held on for their seventh successive league win.
The win saw City re-establish their five-point lead at the top of the table, which could be cut to two when Liverpool play Burnley on Wednesday.
“We were much the better side – we deserved to win but you have to kill,” Guardiola said.
“It is never over at 2-0, you need the third goal. In the last few minutes they had chances. For five minutes they were better than us. You can never relax in the Premier League, that’s why it is nice.”
The trip to Vicarage Road was City’s second of 13 matches in 44 days and Guardiola once again rotated his squad, as he did in the weekend win over Bournemouth.
Sergio Aguero remained sidelined with injury, top scorer Raheem Sterling was rested and an entirely different back four was brought in, including captain Vincent Kompany and England defenders Kyle Walker and John Stones.
Mahrez and David Silva were two of those rested at the weekend and both returned and were influential throughout.
Mahrez’s in-swinging cross from the left was bundled in by Sane with his chest in the 40th minute and then the Algerian swept in Gabriel Jesus’ cross at the back post six minutes after half-time for City’s second.
City made six changes from their win against Bournemouth on Saturday
The league leaders would have added more goals but for the excellence of Foster, who denied Mahrez and Sane when one-on-one in the first half.
He also produced a fine low save to stop Mahrez’s 20-yard shot in the second.
The edgy finish to the game was in stark contrast to the rest of the match when City looked in control, with more than 70% of possession.
The Watford goal came just two minutes after Kompany left the field holding his hamstring, something which will be of concern with the number of games to come in the coming weeks, and suddenly City’s defence looked flustered.
Regardless City held on for their 13th win from 15 games this season and remain unbeaten.
Defeat for Watford sees them remain in their slump following an impressive start to the season. They have won just two of their last 11 games, after winning their first four this season.
It is the first time they have lost three consecutive games under Javi Gracia and they now have their lowest points total after 15 games in their four seasons since returning to the top flight.
However there is no greater challenge currently than facing Guardiola’s City and there were positives for Watford.
They had few chances but, at 0-0, City goalkeeper Ederson saved well with his legs from Troy Deeney and they did manage to worry their opponents in the closing stages.
Foster was excellent in goal and while City dominated possession, Watford did not allow themselves to be cut apart and managed to stay in the game.
Gracia told BBC Sport he was “proud” of his players: “You know they always dominate the game and create a lot of chances.
“Ben Foster was amazing, we showed very good spirit until the end and in the last few minutes we had the option to get a better result.
“I am proud of my players, it is difficult to compete with this very good team. We showed character and desire.”