Leicester City looked to have returned to Premier League action with a win thanks to a late goal from Ben Chilwell, but an acrobatic equaliser by Craig Dawson in added time saved a point for Watford.
It had been 108 days since the Hornets' last league appearance, beating champions-elect Liverpool in famous fashion at Vicarage Road, thanks, in part, to an Ismaila Sarr masterclass. However, they returned to league action without a trio of first-team players.
The relegation-threatened Hornets will be without Daryl Janmaat, Gerard Deulofeu (both knee) and Isaac Success (ruptured achilles) for the remainder of the season. However, Nigel Pearson welcomed back captain, Troy Deeney, after the striker overcame fitness concerns to make the starting line-up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation for Watford.
Leicester arrived at Vicarage Road on the back of beating Birmingham City in the FA Cup back in early March, but the Foxes were without a win in their last four league fixtures as they pursue Champions League qualification.
Brendan Rogers was able to welcome back striker Ayoze Perez and defender Ryan Bennett to the bench after their returns to training in the week before the game, whilst the familiar faces of Marc Albrighton, James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Youri Tielemans formed the middle of a 4-1-4-1 formation for the Foxes, with Jamie Vardy starting upfront, still looking for his elusive 100th Premier League goal.
The game started in line with the atmosphere and it took until the tenth minute for the first chance on goal.
Chelsea’s left-back transfer target Chilwell struck a lively figure early on and caught out a lackadaisical Kiko Femenia on the left to feed Vardy at the front-post in the Watford box. Fortunately for the Hornets, centre-back Dawson reacted quickest to deflect the ball wide from six yards.
It took until the clock had passed 35 minutes for Watford to register their first chance of the game as Abdoulaye Doucoure capitalised on a mistake by Wilfred Ndidi. With the goal at his mercy, the Frenchman scuffed his shot from 10 yards, straight at a relieved Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester goal.
The opportunity galvanised the Hornets and in the 42nd minute, Watford were inches from taking the lead.
After news emerged midweek of Roberto Pereyra’s departure at the end of the season, the Argentinian winger was keen to end his time in Hertfordshire on a high. Pereyra’s swansong nearly began in style as he looked to latch on to a looping header from Dawson in the box but Schmeichel was alert to the threat and reacted quickly to smother the chance.
As the half neared its conclusion, there was time for one more chance for the hosts.
From 35 yards out, Etienne Capoue fizzed a glorious pass into Sarr on the right-hand side. The Senegalese winger then delivered a tantalising cross into the back-post for Pereyra and Doucoure, however a stooping James Justin managed to do just enough to dispel what looked to be a certain goal.
After the break, Watford were quickest out of the traps.
With the half barely two minutes old, Capoue made another sumptuous pass into Sarr. One-on-one, he broke free into the Leicester box, bearing down on Schmeichel, but again the Danish international was equal to the threat, stretching himself wide to deny the Watford striker.
Two minutes later, Sarr turned provider for Femenia who hung the ball into the Leicester back box where Deeney leaped highest, only to see his header drop inches wide of Schmeichel’s right-hand post.
On the hour mark, Leicester registered their first chance of the half. With a free-kick 40 yards out on the right, Maddison whipped the ball into the back-post for Çaglar Söyüncü. The Turkish defender had his head in his hands only moments later after seeing his header drift wide from less than six yards.
Leicester's best moment thus far came in the 75th minute as Albrighton struck the post on the edge of the box before Maddison drew a brilliant save by Ben Foster with an outstretched right hand to tip the ball wide.
In the 90th minute, Leicester did finally find the back of the net for what looked like the winner.
As the game moved end-to-end substitute Demarai Gray found Chilwell in space on the Watford right. With time to pick his spot, the full0back executed his strike to perfection, drilling the ball into the top right corner of the net, leaving Foster helpless in goal.
But onwards Watford came, in search of a deserved equaliser, and with time running out, it arrived in the unlikeliest of fashions.
Jose Holebas, brought on for Adam Masina in the 88th minute, swung in a corner deep in added time. With a deflection or two, the ball fell behind Dawson, eight yards out and unmarked. Acrobatically, the 30-year old flew backwards to create space for an overhead kick and even Schmeichel, in the finest of form, was caught surprised as he was unable to prevent a spectacular equaliser for the Hornets.
Leicester were on the verge of their first win at Vicarage Road since they won the Premier League in 2015/16, however Dawson’s first goal for Watford, with only his third strike on target for the hosts, was enough to save them a point.
Ben Foster, 37 years young
Whilst it wasn’t to be his tenth clean sheet of the season, Foster was, once again, impervious to Leicester’s attack, and it took a piece of magic from Chilwell to break the deadlock.
Leicester only had two shots on target during the 90 minutes, but Foster was at his limber best to get a finger to tip Albrighton’s strike on to the post, before quickly regaining his balance to deny a fierce low shot from Maddison.
It’s 356 appearances and counting for the former England international, including 88 clean sheets with Manchester United, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Watford, and having recently signed a two-year contract extension to stay in Hertfordshire, Foster will be eyeing up 100 Premier League clean sheets.
With performances like this still in his repertoire, 100 doesn’t seem too far off.
For 70 minutes, Pereyra showed once more why he has been such a divisive character in Hertfordshire.
Having developed a cult following for his ability to turn a game on its head and produce moments of magic, alongside weary displays and indifferent enthusiasm, Watford fans have struggled to come to terms with the Argentinian’s inconsistency.
For better or for worse, Pereyra is a player that oozes class and ego in equal measure.
At Vicarage Road on Saturday, Pereyra was at his infuriating best – perhaps relieved of the burden of expectation – playing for fun in a barren stadium, ushered on only by his thoughts and self-motivation.
For much of the first half, Watford’s Argentinian international was everywhere, working tirelessly in defence and attack, flying into tackles, showing quick feet and causing a headache for Justin James at right-back.
Whether he is playing for a new contract elsewhere or just enjoying playing football without a vocal audience, a motivated Pereyra spells good news for the Hornets in their battle for survival.
Watford are looking forward
For only the second time this season, Watford scored in added time – the other coming from Pereyra in a 3-0 trouncing of AFC Bournemouth back in January of this year. Since then, Watford have won only once in eight league games.
In other circumstances, survival hopes would look bleak for the Hornets, but with eight games to play and one point above the relegation zone, Watford are only looking forward.
Pearson was quick to stress the positives for his side after the game: “What pleased me today is that we were able to bounce back after conceding late. To concede so late on is a real difficult thing to deal with. But we deserved something from the game. It is a valuable point.
“We have good players and a good group of people here. You can’t underplay that. It is important to go out on difficult circumstances and still perform.”
With fixtures coming thick and fast as the Premier League draws to a close, we won’t have long to wait to know if “good” is enough for Watford FC.