Watford were eyeing the summit of the Sky Bet Championship ahead of this game but were fortunate to come away with a point after a lacklustre attacking performance away to an organised Queens Park Rangers.
Story of the match
QPR welcomed Watford to West London in their first league meeting in six years.
Languishing in 18th but with two wins in the previous three league games, Mark Warburton’s Rangers made four changes to the side that lost away to Blackburn Rovers before the international break. Rob Dickie missed out through injury, leaving Conor Masterson alongside Yoann Barbet in a flat back four.
After AFC Bournemouth defeated Championship pace-setters Reading in the early kick-off, Watford knew that a win away to QPR would see them move top of the league.
With several Hornets away on international duty during the break, Vladimir Ivić was relieved to only make three changes to the side that won in dramatic style at home to Coventry City two weeks ago. Christian Kabasele, Tom Cleverley and James Garner all made way, as Nathaniel Chalobah, Ben Wilmot and Joao Pedro came into a 3-4-3 formation, with Watford aiming for three or more goals in three consecutive games for the first time in five years.
With the game barely two minutes old, Watford found themselves ahead.
A short corner routine between Ken Sema and Pedro saw the former whip a cross into the six yard box, where Wilmot was running on to the ball. Two yards out, Wilmot could not miss and was rewarded with his first goal in a Hornets shirt.
In the ninth minute, Watford nearly extended their lead from another corner.
William Troost-Ekong rose, unmarked, eight yards out from goal, but was unable to find the target as he guided his header wide in a promising position. The hosts seemed unable to organise themselves at the back in the early stages.
Watford continued to dominate proceedings.
In the 25th minute, Ismaila Sarr will have felt disappointed with his effort on goal after a 25 yard dribble. With Rangers defenders backing off, Sarr carried the ball into the box but skewed his effort off-target from 12 yards with the goal gaping.
A minute later and Watford went even closer to scoring their second.
After good inter-linking play between Sarr and Kiko Femenia sent the overlapping Spanish wing-back to the byline, Femenia crossed the ball into the front-post where Andre Gray got ahead of the defender. With the faintest of deflections, Gray looked to have done enough the divert the ball into the bottom corner but it slid agonisingly wide of the left-hand post, with Seny Dieng well beaten in the Rangers’ goal.
Against the run of play, QPR nearly equalised in the 32nd minute.
After a soft foul by Chalobah, Barbet stepped up from 20 yards. He tried to curl the free-kick into Ben Foster’s top right corner but it fell marginally wide.
The chance energised the hosts and five minutes later, the hosts again went close.
Ilias Chair found an unmarked Dominic Ball in the Watford box, eight yards out. Taking on the cross first-time, the former Watford academic product, Ball stabbed the ball straight at a relieved Foster, who reacted quickly to parry the ball away.
In the 42nd minute, Macauley Bonne ought to have finally levelled for the hosts six yards out but his header, from a deep cross into the box, missed Foster’s right-hand upright by inches.
With QPR on the front-foot, Watford reverted to their counter-attacking approach that had worked so well early on to stem the Hoops tide and it nearly paid immediate dividends.
Latching on to the end of a Pedro through-ball, Sarr carried the ball unopposed into the Rangers box. However, Dieng stood tall and Sarr struck straight at the QPR goalkeeper from 12 yards.
In a bid to switch the momentum back in the way of the Hornets. Ivic brought on Troy Deeney and Domingos Quina for Pedro and Gray at half-time as Watford switched to a 4-4-2 formation.
Watford, however, could not stop QPR creating chances.
In the 50th minute, the fake crowd noise was screaming for a penalty as Bonne went down for the hosts but the referee could not be swayed.
QPR kept up the pressure.
In the 59th minute, Bright Osayi-Samuel won a free-kick 30 yards out after getting the better of Sema. Tom Carroll swung a deep free-kick into Masterson at the back post, but the centre-back’s header skimmed the top of the crossbar with Foster beaten.
It took until the 69th minute for Watford to have their first sight of goal in the second half.
A cross-field ball from Etienne Capoue found Sema on the left. Passing across the edge of the box to Sarr, the Senegalese winger took his shot early but it was high and wide.
Watford’s defence was finally breached in the 76th minute.
Quick feet on the edge of the Watford box saw Lyndon Dykes set Chair through on goal. With only Foster to beat, the Moroccan calmly slid the ball inside the far post for a much deserved equaliser and his third goal of the season.
Five minutes later and QPR were close to taking the lead.
Chris Willock was fouled 25 yards out on the left wing and Carroll swung in a tantalising free-kick. It sparked chaos in the Watford defence but the Hornets were able to scramble the ball away in a crowded box.
As the fourth official displayed five minutes added time, QPR thought they had scored their second. Dykes launched his arm at the ball and into the back of the net inside the six yard box, but fortunately for the Hornets the linesman was alert to the deception as the goal was disallowed.
It was, however, to be the last moment of action as both sides were forced to share the spoils under the lights in West London, with Watford dropping to fifth and QPR remaining 18th.
Takeaways from the match
Setting the tone
Having only scored one first-half goal in the previous four games, Watford started the game as brightly as ever - in stark contrast to their warm-up routine.
Playing a 3-4-3, with Gray the centre-forward of a front-three including Sarr and Pedro, the Hornets game plan was simple, but very effective: counter-attack with pace.
The early chances came from set-pieces but it was the quick feet of the forward line and quick distribution of Chalobah and Capoue in midfield that controlled the tempo of the game and dictated the early momentum. Ivic had done his homework and QPR fell into the trap of a full-pitch press that was easily negotiated by a vibrant Watford side.
Watford delivered a resolute rearguard action for much of the middle-period today as Craig Cathcart and Troost-Ekong shone in defence.
Having kept only one clean-sheet in the previous eight games coming in to today’s game, Ivic - renown for his organised and disciplined sides - had been frustrated by conceding four goals in the previous two games.
Today, Watford set up in a familiar back five formation without the ball, with Femenia and Sema overlapping in attack. With Kabasele missing, Troost-Ekong came into the middle of defence, alongside Cathcart, and Wilmot surprisingly played on the right of the central three.
The move served to balance the Hornets’ spine. Troost-Ekong was vocal, Cathcart was robust. Nothing came through the middle and both acted as generals marshalling the yellow troops until the equaliser.
Having played twice for Nigeria during the international break and making his fourth appearance in 14 days, Troost-Ekong was disciplined, determined and often ahead of the play today.
With four clearances, including one on the goal-line early on, Troost-Ekong was a more than able and capable replacement for Kabasele in a make-shift Watford defence that stood almost everything QPR threw at them.
After the game, Ivic gave an honest assessment of his side’s performance.
“We could have killed the game in the first half but… without energy, passion from the beginning, we were lucky to score in the first minute… but it’s not the way how i want us to play. We need to analyse the game, it’s too early to know what was the problem.
I believe it was our problem today, we were very soft, always second to the ball… normally after first 45, it could have been 3 or 4 nil but we need to change our attitude for every game… we need to think a lot about how to improve… we should have won today.”
That said, two points separates first and sixth in the Championship and with ten games between now and the new year, Watford will have plenty of opportunities to improve on this performance and stake their claim for promotion back to the Premier League.