Story of the match
Roared on by a raucous 2,000 fans, Watford welcomed fans to Vicarage Road for the first time in over nine months as a sense of normality descended upon Hertfordshire.
Unbeaten at home so far this season and without defeat in the previous six league games, the Hornets fans were rewarded for their patience with Vladimir Ivić selecting the attacking trio of Ismaïla Sarr, João Pedro and Troy Deeney to lead the line.
Ivić also made four changes to the side that drew away to Nottingham Forest in midweek, with Tom Cleverley, William Troost-Ekong, Ben Wilmot and Ken Sema coming into the starting line-up for Domingos Quina, Kiko Femenia, Craig Cathcart and Nathaniel Chalobah.
Albeit sitting in twelfth before kick-off, Neil Harris’ Cardiff City arrived at Vicarage Road in good spirits following two successive victories at home to Luton Town and Huddersfield Town, in which they scored seven and kept two clean-sheets.
In looking for the Bluebirds’ sixth win of the season to close the gap on the play-offs, Harris named an unchanged line-up, with Mark Harris and Keiffer Moore leading the line for the visitors in a 4-4-2 formation.
Against the backdrop of a vocal home support, Cardiff City showed no sense of the occasion and created the first chance of the game in the ninth minute.
Harris picked up the ball in space twenty yards out from the Watford goal. Somewhat surprised by the time and space allowed, Harris snatched at his effort, looking for Ben Foster’s top corner but the ball drifted harmlessly wide.
Three minutes later and Watford went close through Pedro as he dragged his shot inches wide from 12 yards after good link-up play between Jeremy Ngakia and Sarr in Cardiff’s final third.
In the 14th minute, the visitors were back on the attack as Moore towered over the Watford defence but couldn’t keep his header down just 8 yards out from goal.
The game continued to flow end to end after that as both sides created openings and peppered their opposition’s box with crosses but without manufacturing clear chances.
The Watford faithful had to wait until the 38th minute before the next effort on goal but it fell to the visitors as Joe Ralls swung in an inviting corner that Captain, Sean Morrison headed over from 10 yards out.
The deadlock was eventually broken just five minutes later.
Watford failed to clear another Ralls corner aimed at Morrison, with the ball this time falling to Moore. Seven yards out, the Cardiff striker made no mistake as he fired the ball low passed a helpless Foster for his eighth goal of the season.
A minute later and Watford were left wondering how they hadn’t equalised as a tantalising cross by James Garner flew across the Cardiff six yard box. Deeney was amongst the yellow horde of bodies that flung themselves at the ball but were unable to get a touch as the ball drifted out for a goal-kick in the last moment of action in the first half.
The game turned scrappy in the second half as both sides were frustrated by refereeing decisions but much like the first, chances were few and far between.
It wasn’t until the introduction of Quina and Will Hughes that the Hornets showed their first real signs of life.
In the 68th minute, Kabasele showed glimpses of Paul Scholes as he found Quina with a 50 yard through-ball over the top of the Cardiff defence, but Quina’s effort was blocked by Smithies out for a corner.
It took until the 72 minute for Watford to have their first effort on target as Pedro headed straight at Smithies from a Garner corner.
Suddenly Watford had momentum and went close through Pedro, Femenia, Deeney and Hughes as they applied pressure on the Cardiff goal but still the Bluebirds held strong.
The Hornets best chance to equalise came in added time as substitute, Stipe Perica headed over from two yards out where it looked easier to score but it wasn’t to be for the hosts as they experienced their first home defeat of the season and dropped out of the play-off places to seventh.
Takeaways from the match
Leaving it late
For 66 minutes, the crowd could have been mistaken for thinking this was a pre-season friendly, such was the slow tempo and lack of bite in this game.
Watford had failed to muster an attacking effort on goal prior to the introduction of Quina and Hughes but suddenly the Hornets came alive.
First through Quina showing his pace and getting beyond the static Cardiff City defence, then Femenia walking through defensive gaps, before Sarr showed his ability by latching on to a deep through-ball, Watford demonstrated glimpses of class, flickers of why they will be challenging for Promotion to the Premier League this season, but not enough to strike fear in their opponents, nor three points this afternoon.
An abundance of wing-back riches
At 20 years of age, Ngakia has seen very little first team football but has a bright future ahead of it.
Having made just five appearances for West Ham United before leaving on a free transfer to Watford in the summer, Ngakia has shown a defensive aptitude and attacking intent that makes you wonder what his previous coaches never saw.
Not for the first time this season, Ngakia showed his ability to create chances and be an attacking nuisance for the opposition today but unfortunately his day was brought to a premature end at half-time.
In the 49 minute, fewer than 4 minutes after replacing Ngakia at right wing-back, Femenia took on where his predecessor had left off. The Spaniard, not for the last time, got ahead of Joe Bennett and was inches away from finding an unmarked Deeney at the back post.
In the 70th minute Femenia went close to equalising from his own effort 12 yards out as the visitors struggled to cope with the overlapping wing-backs but Watford were ultimately unable to make the threat count.
There were few contenders for either side today in an often drab and labourious game, but Moore was ultimately the difference in front of goal.
The Bluebirds’ only short on target fell to the Welshman, who finished in clinical fashion inside the box but also looked the most comfortable on the ball throughout.
After the game, Watford’s manager Vladimir Ivić expressed his frustration at his side’s slow start,
“We need to start from the first second of the game.
We pushed our opponent… they score from set-pieces but my problem is our game. First 45 like second (half), we need to be aware to play 90 minutes with tempo and from the beginning to give our best…
We need to work, need to find the reason, to improve the season as fast as possible because we have 2, 3 days and we must be ready for the next one.”
With games coming thick and fast between now and the new year, Ivić has plenty of opportunity to improve performances, but if the Hornets continue to play like this, they will find themselves sliding down the league and out of promotion contention come the business end of the Sky Bet Championship season.