In their first pre-season encounter of 2019, Watford were dealt a late blow by Champions League semi-finalists Ajax who earned a dramatic winner courtesy of young full-back Jurriën Timber.
The Hornets took the lead when Andre Gray fired home a penalty just before half-time but Donny van de Beek equalised for the Dutch outfit soon after the break, and the Eredivisie champions continued their push for a winner right up until Timber's looping header nestled in the Watford goal.
Although this is the result Ajax will have expected of themselves, Watford were visibly disheartened to lose in such a manner and will be keen to earn a more favourable outcome when they face Bayer Leverkusen in just two days.
Story of the game
Manager of the Dutch champions, Erik ten Hag, fielded a strong team; the likes of Joël Veltman, Daley Blind, Lasse Schöne and Dusan Tadić accompanied new signing Quincy Promes and promising youngsters such as Dominik Kotarski, Sergino Dest, Razvan Marin and Kasper Dolberg.
Similarly, the Hornets kicked off the encounter with a mixed side, the experience of the likes of Daryl Janmaat, Adrian Mariappa, Craig Cathcart and Étienne Capoue supplementing the youthful prospect of Harry Forster.
It was Ajax who enjoyed the majority of the early possession; they knocked the ball around in the manner that one would expect of Champions League semi-finalists, and it nearly resulted in a breakthrough just three minutes in when Promes darted to the byline before his cutback was plucked gratefully from the air by Daniel Bachmann.
Versatile American defender Dest — deployed at left-back here — then picked the ball up on the flank and feinted away from the challenge of Janmaat before floating a cross towards the back post, but Watford were able to clear their lines before it could be attacked.
Bachmann — making his first appearance for the Hornets since returning from a successful loan spell at Kilmarnock last year — navigated an uneasy moment when Dolberg forced the Austrian to clear awkwardly for an Ajax corner, but the 25-year old made up for his error by saving a vicious deflected effort from Promes in the aftermath of the resultant corner.
In the 11th minute, Watford academy graduate Forster did well to win the ball from Blind who was dwelling on the edge of his own area, and the 19-year old drew a foul for his side. The following free-kick from Cleverley stooped agonisingly high of the crossbar.
At the other end Ajax were handed a similar opportunity when Dolberg drifted towards the Watford box and was felled by Mariappa, but the set-piece effort was blocked by the leaping Stefano Okaka.
On the 20-minute mark, Forster again won the ball high up the pitch and sent Janmaat into space down the right wing. The Dutchman's cross found the head of Cleverley at the back post, but the 29-year old failed to direct his header goalwards.
After a relatively quiet spell, Bachmann was called into action once again. Central defender Perr Schuurs looked to capitalise on a lengthy spell of Ajax possession by stepping into midfield and received the ball before taking a couple of strides towards goal and unleashing a driven effort, but the Watford goalkeeper got down well to save.
In fact, it was testament to the defensive efforts of the Hornets that, with nearly half an hour on the clock, Bachmann had only truly been called into action from long range efforts.
However, the Austrian was promptly put to the test when van de Beek picked out Promes in acres of space cutting in from the left flank. The new signing at the Johan Cruyff ArenA attempted to caress the ball into the far bottom corner, but Bachmann saved expertly at his feet.
The Godenzonen thought they'd found their breakthrough from the resultant corner. The ball was cut back for Tadić whose inviting cross into the centre was met by Veltman. An emphatic header from the 27-year old ended up in the net, but was ruled out for offside.
And 37 minutes in the deadlock was ultimately broken, but it was the Hornets that would be celebrating. A long range one-two between Abdoulaye Doucouré and Gray unleashed the Frenchman on goal against Kotarski, but an awkwardly bouncing ball struck the hand of Schuurs — although it then trickled into the net, the penalty had already been awarded by the referee, and Gray emphatically dispatched the spot kick to send Watford into the lead at half-time.
Javi Gracia made 11 changes at the break including the introduction of new signing Craig Dawson at centre-back, while Ajax brought on Carel Eiting, Lisandro Magallán and Jurgen Ekkelenkamp for Schöne, Blind and Marin respectively.
Similarly to the first-half, it was Ajax who began proceedings the brighter of the two sides. Early on they pounced on a loose ball from substitute Will Hughes and supplied Promes with a through ball; the 27-year old looked to bear down on goal but Christian Kabasele was able to capitalise on a poor touch from the former Sevilla winger, making a crucial tackle.
It wouldn't take long for the scores to be levelled. In the 52nd minute, Tadić floated into the Watford box and reached the byline before cutting the ball back for van de Beek who calmly slotted past the helpless Pontus Dahlberg.
Just before the hour mark, Hughes looped a pass over the Ajax defence into the path of Gerard Deulofeu who attempted to power the dropping ball into the far corner, but the effort trickled wide of the post.
On the other side of 60 minutes, the Dutch champions continued their push for the lead as Ekkelenkamp was threaded into a one-on-one situation with Dahlberg, but the Swedish international stopper did exceptionally well to prevent the youngster's low effort from nestling in the net.
Moments later, a Watford counter-attack saw the ball fall at the feet of Isaac Success who sprayed a pass to Ken Sema on the left. The 26-year old teased his way into space on his stronger left side and let fly with a tremendously powerful strike, but the effort was saved bravely by the young Kotarski.
With less than 20 minutes left, an impressive run from the 18-year old Timber saw him glide into the Watford area before supplying Ekkelenkamp on the edge of the box, but the goal-bound effort was blocked and cleared valiantly by Dawson.
After a relatively scrappy spell, Watford came close to regaining their lead when Nathaniel Chalobah unleashed a low drive towards the far corner, but Kotarski watched gratefully as the ball edged wide of the post.
In the closing stages, and with the game heading for draw, Ajax's frustration was on display when an ambitious curling strike from Ryan Gravenberch failed to trouble Dahlberg.
And yet, just as the game seemed to be petering towards conclusion, the Godenzonen notched a late winner. A lofted cross from Eiting met the head of Timber who guided his header past the flailing Swedish goalkeeper.
Watford pushed for a late equaliser, obviously reluctant to succumb to what would prove a harsh result, but their efforts were in vain as the Dutch champions defended their lead to secure the win.
Ajax mould replacements for high-profile departures
Make no mistake of it, 2018/19 was something of the realisation of a dream for Ajax. Earning their place in the final four of Europe's premier cup competition, on top of securing the domestic double with both the Eredivisie and KNVB Cup trophies, created undying memories and marked the beginning of, perhaps, a new era of success in Amsterdam.
However, with key players moving to pastures new — most notably Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, who transferred to FC Barcelona and Juventus respectively — it may be unrealistic to expect 2019/20 to behold the fortunes of the year before.
And yet it seems ten Hag has a plan to navigate this problem. In the first-half particularly, Schöne dropped into what looked to be the role pinned down by de Jong last season — a pocket in the half-space between defence and midfield — from where he sprayed pass after pass, instrumental to each and every Ajax attack, while Schuurs cut something of a de Ligt-like figure next to the more technical Blind at centre-back.
Furthermore, new signing Promes was lively and may, on another day, have notched a couple of goals in his name, while young prospects such as Dest, Dolberg and the eventual match-winner, Timber, all shone brightly.
Hornets lively despite limited preparation
On top of the fact that they were competing against one of last season's elite footballing sides, this was also Watford's first pre-season outing and, as such, they arguably did well to remain in the contest until Timber's late blow.
Their lack of preparation was far from evident across either half, as Gracia instructed his two elevens to press high and attack with pace — but the squad did not wilt under the exertion.
Doucouré and Capoue were typically herculean in midfield and the new member in the squad, Dawson, showed strong defensive ability despite being on the pitch for both of Ajax's goals. Furthermore, youngsters Forster and Ben Wilmot were handed 45 minutes apiece and took to the challenge with noticeable diligence and application.
As Gracia stressed pre-match, results at this nascent period of the season draw little concern, and the Hornets can take encouragement from a number of aspects of their performance as the upcoming Premier League campaign edges ever closer.
Watford have just one day of rest awaiting them before they face German powerhouses Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Ajax meet Greek Super League outfit OFI Crete.