At a floodlit and drenched Vicarage Road, hosts Watford dispatched low-lying Wycombe Wanderers in a match of importance at both ends of the table.
It was a victory secured by two goals from Andre Gray who had scored just the one Championship goal this season prior to tonight — the Hornets were good value for the win overall, but Wycombe gave their all, and might feel they could have snuck a goal or two from a handful of encouraging sequences.
The result sees Watford remain 3rd, but they do climb to level on points with 2nd-placed Brentford as the race for automatic promotion hots up. Wycombe, meanwhile, stay at the foot of the table.
Story of the game
Coming into the match, Watford manager Xisco Munoz made three changes to the side that lost narrowly to AFC Bournemouth at the weekend, two of them enforced: the suspended Nathaniel Chalobah and Joao Pedro dropped out for Philip Zinckernagel and Gray respectively, while William Troost-Ekong replaced Craig Cathcart in defence.
Meanwhile, visiting manager Gareth Ainsworth was boosted by the return of Ryan Tafazolli at the heart of his Wycombe defence, with Joe Jacobson and Daryl Horgan also coming in. Garath McCleary and Anis Mehmeti dropped to the bench, while full-back Jordan Obita missed out due to injury.
Ainsworth had talked about his side's desire to frustrate Norwich City at first and press high later in the game, but that couldn't have been further from the case here; Wycombe allowed Watford very little time on the ball right from the off.
But it was the hosts who fashioned the first chance of the game. It came from an out-swinging Ken Sema corner on three minutes; he drove it low towards Adam Masina and it seemed for all the world the full-back would calmly guide the ball into the net, but he missed it completely.
Wycombe's high press nearly paid dividends moments later. David Wheeler dispossessed Masina on the right flank and drove forward, feeding former Hornet Uche Ikpeazu who was then felled by Zinckernagel, giving the visitors a free-kick around 20 yards from goal. Up stepped set-piece specialist Jacobson; his effort had power but not enough height, clipping a Watford defender to go behind for a corner.
Watford took the lead inside 15 minutes. Ismaila Sarr spread the ball out to Kiko Femenia who set himself and delivered a tantalising cross right onto the edge of the six-yard box where Gray was lurking to prod home his second goal of the season.
They could have made it two when Sarr picked up possession once again but instead of going outside again, this time the forward laid the ball off for Tom Cleverley who hit it first-time, the effort directed wide by a deflection off Josh Knight.
All of Watford's joy was coming down that heralded right flank. Once again Sarr and Femenia linked up as the former summoned up a clever back-heel to set the Spaniard on an unobstructed run towards the byline. He set himself and attempted to conjure a carbon copy of the opener by crossing straight to the feet of Gray, but this time the striker failed to connect with it.
Sarr couldn't stay away from centre stage. He latched onto a through ball and drifted past Jacobson before tumbling to the ground calling for a penalty, his teammates joining the appeals, but referee Geoff Eltringham was unmoved. Replays indicated a slight tug of the shirt from behind; VAR might have had a second look at that incident.
Watford's quality and the magnitude of their attributes, particularly in a physical sense, were really showing. A quick counter-attack saw Cleverley clip the ball across the pitch to Masina who found himself in acres of space at the back post; but instead of chesting the ball down and shooting himself, he attempted to nod it across goal for Gray who was caught off-guard, and the chance petered out.
A matter of inches prevented the hosts from scoring their second with around 10 minutes of the half remaining. Sarr spearheaded the counter-attack on this occasion, driving towards the area before cutting onto his right foot and arrowing a shot towards that far top corner — agonisingly wide.
The Hornets were creating the chances alright, doing everything to perfection until it came to that crucial final touch. Again, Sarr skinned Jacobson and crossed into Gray who saw his effort saved by David Stockdale, before Sema's follow-up was blocked superbly by Anthony Stewart. Somehow, Wycombe were still in this game heading into the break.
And they had the ball in the net within moments of the restart however, as Wheeler wheeled away in celebration, linesman James Wilson raised his flag for offside — it looked a contentious decision and the Wycombe staff were incensed, Ainsworth making his feelings crystal clear: "That was on, lino!"
Watford earned heir elusive second goal just before the hour mark. Sarr drove towards the Wycombe box and cut the ball infield for Zinckernagel. The Dane twisted and turned on the edge of the area before playing a lovely little pass through the legs of Stewart and into the stride of Gray, who could not miss from a matter of yards out with only Stockdale to beat.
Zinckernagel was strutting his stuff on his full Championship debut for the hosts. When the Hornets next regained the ball, he picked it up in midfield and darted towards goal before unleashing a fierce drive from his left boot, but it nestled in the side netting.
And thus began Watford's quest for a presumably game-clinching third. Will Hughes fed Sema about 20 yards from goal and the Swede shifted the ball onto his stronger left foot before flashing a powerful effort across goal and just past the far post.
Wycombe had the next chance, though. Ikpeazu held the ball up well in the box and eventually offloaded it for substitute Curtis Thompson, whose side-footed effort should have done more to trouble Daniel Bachmann in goal.
With an assist to his name, Zinckernagel now wanted to score. He took the ball off Cleverley and weaved into the box before stinging the palms of Stockdale. The goalkeeper could only parry as far as Gray, whose effort fell to the foot of Sarr, but he too failed to summon the decisive touch.
Two would do for Watford, who will take the three points and move on; tonight wasn't easy, but they did enough to pile yet more pressure on the teams around them heading towards the run-in.
Takeaways from the match
Zinckernagel gives Watford a new dimension
He was involved in 37 goals for Norway's Bodo/Glimt last season, a figure which put him among the most creative players in Europe — it's been a slow start to life at Vicarage Road since his arrival in January, but tonight we began to see what the Dane is capable of.
His quality in possession makes Zinckernagel a real asset to Watford, particularly in games like these when the defensive prowess of the man he replaced, Chalobah, may not be required. The 26-year old topped an assured full debut off with an assist and was unlucky not to score, too. Finally, it seems he may be up to the pace of English football.
Wycombe aren't down and out
The table doesn't lie and, 12 points adrift of 21st with 13 games remaining, it's no secret that keeping Wycombe in the second tier will be an almighty task for Ainsworth and his men — but there are signs that the great escape the manager has talked about lately shouldn't be written off just yet.
Again, the Chairboys fought hard and harried Watford to the best of their ability, whilst creating a handful of chances of their own which they'll be disappointed not to have capitalised on. Watford's quality told in the end, but against teams that aren't made up of former Premier League players or internationals, they'll always have a chance.
Watford: Bachmann; Femenia (Ngakia 74'), Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Masina; Cleverley (Wilmot 86'), Hughes, Zinckernagel; Sarr, Gray (Perica 84'), Sema (Hungbo 83').
Unused subs: Elliot, Barrett, Cathcart, Pochettino, Success.
Wycombe Wanderers: Stockdale; Grimmer, Knight (Ofoborh 67'), Tafazolli, Stewart, Jacobson; Wheeler, Gape (Thompson 67'); Horgan (Kashket 80'), Ikpeazu (Akinfenwa 80'), Onyedinma (McCleary 67').
Unused subs: Allsop, McCarthy, Mehmeti, Muskwe.
Following victory here, Watford are back at Vicarage Road for the Saturday lunchtime kick-off as they host Nottingham Forest.
Meanwhile, Wycombe travel to Stoke City hoping to kickstart their great escape with 13 Championship games now remaining for them.