And so it was all decided on the last day, the eventual winners taking a 4-1 victory away from home to clinch the prize. There had been drama along the way, but as the season ended, with eyes all over the world watching, West Ham best Watford and claimed the prize of a top ten finish.
Manuel Pellegrini welcomed back Felipe Anderson and Players’ Player of the Year Declan Rice to his side as Diangana and Obiang were replaced, the chance of sneaking back into the top ten on offer. The Hammers had to win, Watford would stay in the top half with a point or better.
And they thought they’d started the game in fine fashion as Deulofeu had the ball in the back of the net after 17 seconds. Fortunately for West Ham, the flag was raised on a narrow call.
The fast start was indicative of an open first half, one that allowed the likes of Deulofeu and Antonio opportunities in behind and kept both goalkeepers alert.
With all the pace and power on show, it was a man not known for either who opened the scoring.
50 career league goals read the record books as Mark Noble combined smartly with Antonio in the middle of the park then ran at the back line. Kabasele stood him up, Noble shaped to shoot, but his dummied effort sold the defender an early holiday and Kabasele flew to another continent and Noble walked in on goal and slid it into the corner with his left foot and beyond Ben Foster.
Whilst Watford may have been thinking of an FA Cup final to come, they showed an eagerness to play. They had sightings at goal, but fell further behind on 38 minutes when Antonio’s persistence and physicality allowed him to bully multiple Watford defenders on the edge of the box before unleashing at goal.
His effort was tipped onto the bar, but whilst the Watford backline were recovering from the bruising experience of Michail Antonio, Manuel Lanzini followed in the effort and nodded in a simple goal into an open net.
Watford would feel aggrieved to be behind, let alone trailing by two at half time. And it could have been different, if not for Hammer of the Year Lukasz Fabianski making a point blank save from Troy Deeney.
Watford won the header at the back post and as it was nodded across goal, Deeney flicked it forward from a few yards out. Fabianski reacted superbly to make a fantastic save.
It was seconds before the end of the first half, but it only took seconds for it to be forgotten after the break.
Zabaleta, a first half substitute, received the ball from kick off and under barely a little pressure, rolled a blind pass to his goalkeeper.
Except Deulofeu had seen the obvious coming, and gambled on the full back’s mistake. With Fabianski rushing forward, the Spaniard played it round the ‘keeper and rolled the ball into an empty net to give Watford a deserved goal, albeit in fortuitous circumstances.
It gave them a foothold back in what had been a very level game.
Two minutes later, they threw that foothold away.
Breaking on the counter, Anderson did magnificently to beat his man and slide Antonio behind the defence.
Ahead of his marker, Antonio drives towards goal, only to be taken down as he reached the edge of the area by Jose Cholevas. A red card followed, harshly, with very minimal contact. It was welcome for West Ham, but a shame to see the left back now miss the FA Cup final over a foul so soft.
It gave West Ham 40 minutes against ten men and a one goal advantage, the prospect of a top ten finish looking all the more real.
But it was Watford who turned their game up first, and only the intervention of Felipe Anderson that stopped them levelling.
If ever evidence was needed of the shift the Brazilian winger is willing to put in, it was this intervention, the perfect argument to lazy criticisms of foreign wingers and their workrates.
Watford were allowed to break from a corner West Ham had won following the freekick and the red card.
Foster caught the ball and rolled it for the break. It was led by Deulofeu, who cruised by Zabaleta and one on one with Fabianski. He rolled it to his left and gave Doucoure and open goal, but not before Anderson flew back and cleared the ball off Doucoure’s toes, saving a certain goal. A frenetic start to the second half.
It gave Watford hope, but it was the away side that pushed on for more.
The game was effectively ended on 70 minutes. Having meekly missed a chance minutes before, this time Arnautovic couldn’t miss.
Having worked the ball from side to side patiently, Declan Rice stepped forward at goal and then played wide to Zabaleta. He chipped his ball towards the far edge of the area and Anderson moved towards it before guiding a side-footed volley at goal.
Foster did well to tip it onto the post, but fortunately for the Hammers, it came back towards the busy area and to the path of Arnautovic.
He tucked away with ease and moved into double figures for the season, putting him now one above Felipe Anderson to finish his mixed season as top scorer. The Austrian shook hands with a young Hammers fan in the crowd and the support sang his name loud.
It effectively ended the contest, with West Ham completely in control from here. Minutes after the goal, Antonio should have done better one on one after a wonderful Anderson pass, missing out on a deserved goal.
Continually involved, it was the winger who made the next vital contribution.
Anderson was tackled in the box, but as the defender spun to get the ricocheting ball, Antonio pounced first. He flicked it forward and was dragged down by the defender. Stepping up on 78 minutes, Noble was cool and controlled as he hit a very good penalty and finished the game off.
A brace was well deserved for the captain, a man whose return to form in recent games has lifted his teammates and dragged the side back into the top ten when the season looked to be floundering to a quiet end.
Things could have been different in a back and forth first half, but it ended in a wonderful 4-1 away win and three consecutive victories to finish the season.
It was a great way to end Pellegrini’s first season in charge, giving them the targeted top half finish and a ten point improvement on last season.
It reminded fans too of what could have been, especially with Arnautovic’s recent return to form.
A clinical and well-deserved victory before another intriguing summer. A season to look back on and neither lament nor celebrate wildly. Midtable isn’t always exciting, but it’s fitting for this season.
Lukasz Fabianski (8) Made vital saves and played to his normal, unflappable level. What a fantastic year.
Ryan Fredericks (6) Disappointing to end the season being forced off, but a really strong spell lately.
Arthur Masuaku (7) He’ll forever be frustrating, as the basics he needs to improve on seem so definite not to be improved. A lovely footballer, especially going forward.
Issa Diop (7) Much better with Balbuena beside him, possibly allowed to leave the physical work to his partner. A talented defender and footballer, an incredible prospect.
Fabian Balbuena (7) All these points have aligned with his return to the side. Easily the best defender at the club. 15 clearances in this game. 15.
Declan Rice (6) A quieter game for Declan, not that he did much of anything wrong. Had a truly incredible season.
Mark Noble (9) Two goals, some wonderful passing and well worth crediting with the late-season revival of this side. 97% pass success from 68 passes. Magnificent.
Felipe Anderson (9) Pushed from an 8 to a 9 for just how vital that defensive clearance was. If he’d been 50 yards away, no one would have bat an eyelid. But he worked and got his reward. Some inspired touches, looked like he enjoyed his game.
Manuel Lanzini (8) Took his goal well, lovely link play between the lines and does his defensive shift too. Great to see him looking back to his old self, with a welcome break and a pre-season ahead of next season.
Michail Antonio (9) Has caused havoc these last few games and today was no different. Heavily involved in three goals and could have scored himself.
Marko Arnautovic (7) Whilst a little quiet, he linked well in spells and did very well to react for his goal. Good to see him back to near his old self, whether he stays or goes this summer.
Pablo Zabaleta (5) (Replaced Fredericks) Looked off the pace and could have been punished on more than the one occasion he was.
Jack Wilshire (6) (Replaced Lanzini) Neat, tidy, and gets involved between the lines well. Does seem like a slower Lanzini, interesting to see where he fits.
Carlos Sanchez (6) (Replaced Rice) Came on to play deep at a time when there was little to do.
Adrian San Miguel del Castillo (0) Did not play.
Angelo Ogbonna (0) Did not play.
West Ham United: Lukasz Fabianski, Ryan Fredericks, Arthur Masuaku, Issa Diop, Fabian Balbuena, Declan Rice, Mark Noble, Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini, Michail Antonio, Marko Arnautovic.
Substitutes: Pablo Zabaleta, Jack Wilshire, Carlos Sanchez, Adrian San Miguel del Castillo, Angelo Ogbonna.
Goals: Mark Noble 15 Manuel Lanzini 79 Marko Arnautovic 71 Mark Noble 78
Watford: Foster, Femenia, Cathcart, Kabasele (Mariappa 78), Holebas, Doucoure, Capoue, Hughes (Masina 67), Pereyra, Deulofeu (Gray 59), Deeney.
Subs not used: Gomes, Janmaat, Chalobah, Success.
Goals: Deulofeu (46)
Booked: Capoue (90+1)
Sent Off: Holebas (48)
Referee: Chris Kavanagh
Man of the Match: Michail Antonio