This was not the time for complacency, for imprudence, for costly individual errors. No, this was crunch time — the showing simply had to be copybook. Nigel Pearson knew it pre-match: "We have to make sure our own performance gives us the best chance of winning the game," he said.
Well, it did for the opening 45 minutes. Watford gained the front foot early on, pressing high and moving the ball with pace and intent. This looked a team keen to amend defeat at the death to Aston Villa in their last league outing, at least desperate to ensure it would not happen again.
And, if the first goal is anything to go by, it looked a good team at that. Étienne Capoue received possession on the right flank and shifted play with a sweeping, lobbed driven pass out to Gerard Deulofeu on the left. It caught the wind in its flight and was surely destined to go into touch, but the Spaniard, playing against his former club, controlled the ball exquisitely and locked eyes on the Everton goal.
Then he spotted the run of full-back Adam Masina into the penalty area. Without hesitation, Deulofeu teed up his teammate, who took the bouncing ball in his stride and finished assuredly past an outstretched Jordan Pickford. Vicarage Road roared in satisfaction; the 'Great Escape' under Pearson, after a momentary blip in the Midlands, was underway again.
The second goal, though perhaps not quite as pleasing on the eye, was a similarly conclusive marker of a team playing with zeal and belief. Skipper Troy Deeney intercepted a stray pass from Fabian Delph and threaded through Roberto Pereyra who, one-on-one with Pickford, made no mistake in sending the goalkeeper to the floor as the ball arced into the net.
A two-goal lead heading into the break would have been just rewards for what was a dominant and altogether confident Watford display. What ensued in the closing moments of the half may have seemed harsh at the time given the balance of play beforehand, but the truth is that the Hornets ultimately did not deserve to hold on to the lead which they had worked so hard to muster — and Everton pounced on that.
As the ball trickled out of play for a corner for the Toffees, the travelling support barely reacted. Their celebrations when Yerry Mina poked home after a chaotic scramble in the box were still somewhat muted.
It was only at the second corner a few moments later, that which would go on to be one of the final kicks of the half, that blood was scented. The visiting fans saw Mina standing there again, tall and imposing, ready to throw himself at any ball that came his way. All but his man-marker Craig Cathcart anticipated it; the Colombian powered home past a rooted Ben Foster, and the scores were — somehow, inexplicably, inconceivably — even as the teams headed into the dressing rooms at half-time.
Immediately after the break, Everton's momentum was sustained as they pegged their hosts back into defence on the edge of their own box. It was something of a siege, but Watford were granted a route back into the ascendency when Delph was dismissed for a second bookable offence with 70 minutes on the clock. Opposition manager Carlo Ancelotti admitted post-match that his side were merely holding out for the draw from that points onwards.
But that will only contribute to the anger and bemusement from all associated with Watford towards what occurred in one of the game's final passages of play. The Hornets committed too many men forward, and Masina surrendered possession to Richarlison in the middle of the park. Danger was spelled out letter-by-letter as the Brazilian raced forward but still there was no attempt to bring him down and thwart the attack — the 21-year old squared the ball across for substitute Moise Kean, whose scuffed shot fell kindly for Theo Walcott to caress past Foster.
The fact that Watford may now be used to heartbreak such as this, such has been the hardship of this season, has not and will not numb the pain at that goal and its consequences. After escaping the relegation zone for the first time this season in mid-January, they are now right back in the mix: 19th, two points off safety, and with a handful of truly vital fixtures approaching.
There are genuine indicators that performance is improving. Mina's set-piece brace demonstrated a feebleness in defending such situations which has actually proven an exception rather than the rule under Pearson. Watford, though they ultimately did not test Pickford enough, fashioned a handful of incisive passing moves and were rewarded with the odd goalscoring opportunity, taking six shots in the opening 45 minutes, all from inside the box. They were dogged in defence, particularly in the first period when they made 15 tackles, six interceptions and ten clearances.
But the fact is that it all counts for nothing if composure and concentration are absent at the vital moments. Individual errors cost Watford on Saturday, against Aston Villa in January, and they generally have done all throughout this season. The only measure of performance that bears any real significance at this stage in time is the points tally, and, as of now, that does not shed any degree of kind light on the Hornets.
Anyway, perhaps more concerning than mere statistics is the fact that this performance and result is totally uncharacteristic of the team Watford have striven to be since the arrival of Pearson in December. He spoke of making Vicarage Road a fortress, and it had been, with three wins and a draw there throughout his reign prior to this; he spoke of sustaining high performance levels, and, until these last two defeats, they had managed to do so to an admirable standard.
Just look at the victories over Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the post-Christmas week, both despite being reduced to ten men — there was a team determined to alleviate themselves from their predicament and finally producing displays to the standard all knew they were capable of. But after recent events, is it now time to debate whether or not that is still the case? Has the new manager bounce, which seemed so invincible and potent at the time, already waned? Will it ever be rekindled; if so, will there be sufficient time for it to count?
It serves nothing to ponder; there isn't time anymore. And there is no point in playing the blame game, either; there are simply too many crucial games approaching for that. Whether recruitment, coaching, the players or just a mixture of mistakes and pot luck is at fault for the adversity continuing to permeate this season, only a view towards the future, towards setting the record straight and righting the wrongs, will lift the Hornets from their present position.
This defeat could very well define Watford's season — it's only in their hands to make sure it doesn't.