Watford moved a step closer to an instant Premier League return after two goals in as many first-half minutes from Ismaïla Sarr earned a 2-0 win at home to Reading. Xisco, the Watford manager, saw his side move to within five points of leaders Norwich as well as establishing a 12-point lead over third-place Brentford, who have two games in hand including Saturday’s visit to Preston.
Reading remain in the final play-off slot but are in danger of being bumped down by Bournemouth, who also have two games in hand.
Watford were unchanged from the side that drew 1-1 at Middlesbrough on Monday while Reading opted to leave top scorer Lucas João on the bench despite a goal in the 3-1 win at home to Derby that day.
The game’s first chance, after two minutes of silence to mark the death of Prince Philip earlier on Friday, was created by Watford in the fifth minute. Sarr chested down a clearance from goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann and set up João Pedro for a low drive across goal that was just wide.
Sarr’s effort six minutes later was rewarded with a high-quality opener. The winger was involved in hustling Reading out of possession but still had plenty to do when he accepted Kiko Femenía’s pass on the right of the box. The Senegal international cut inside at pace before planting a curling left-footed effort beyond Reading’s goalkeeper Rafael Cabral.
Sarr doubled the lead 77 seconds later after Nathaniel Chalobah and Philip Zinckernagel combined to dispossess Lewis Gibson. The angle was tight for the 23-year-old but his rising drive completely eluded Rafael fingertips.
George Puscas passed up a great opportunity to halve the deficit when he hit a post rather than a gaping net from close range. Michael Olise ran at the Watford defence and slipped Yakou Méïté in on the right but somehow his teammate could not finish.
Sarr soon had the ball in the net at the other end but a raised flag denied him a hat-trick before half-time. There was another let-off for Watford just before the break when William Troost-Ekong gave the ball straight to Méïté, who could only fire into the side netting.
Reading made a strong start to the second period but saw Andy Rinomhota booked for hacking Sarr down to stop a swift counterattack. Lucas João replaced Puscas just after the hour mark as the Royals attempted to turn some encouraging approach play into goals. Watford were forced into a change at the back when Troost-Ekong was hurt, with Craig Cathcart coming on for the final 20 minutes.
Zinckernagel headed an increasingly rare Watford chance wide and then fired a much better one over as the hosts remained unable to kill the game off. Substitute Carlos Sánchez fired wide from distance for the hosts and fellow replacement Omar Richards was off target at the other end before Sarr saw a shot deflected just wide.
Another substitute, Sone Aluko, was denied by a smart save by Bachmann as time finally ran out for Reading.