There was to be no shock win at the home of the Premier League champions but Watford emerged with credit following a 3-0 defeat against Manchester City in the third round of the FA Cup.
Backed by their superb travelling army of 6,000 fans, the Hornets held their own until midway through the first half when Carlos Tevez put the hosts in front with a stunning free-kick.
The final outcome might have been different had Fernando Forestieri been able to capitalise on what turned out to be his side’s best chance soon after when he was put through one-on-one, but the Argentine was unable to beat keeper Costel Pantilimon.
The visitors, who defended much better than in Tuesday’s defeat to Charlton Athletic, really needed to keep the deficit to one goal to stand a realistic chance of turning the game around after the break, but Gareth Barry put clear daylight between the sides at the end of the first half.
Gianfranco Zola’s men continued to hold their own after the break and had their own attacking moments, although City also spurned some fine chances to extend their lead. But it looked like the margin of defeat would remain at two until stoppage time when substitute Marcos Lopes netted the third.
The Hornets boss had selected what looked to be a very bold 3-4-3 formation on paper, making six changes from the side that was beaten by Charlton on New Year’s Day. His hand was forced to some extent though, because Manuel Almunia, Jonathan Hogg and Almen Abdi were all ruled out with injury.
Jonathan Bond came in for just his third Hornets first-team start in goal, while Lloyd Doyley and Nyron Nosworthy returned to defence following their respective injury problems. John Eustace was back in midfield for the first time since the opening league game of the season after recovering from his troublesome back and Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra returned to form two-thirds of what looked to be an adventurous three-pronged frontline alongside Forestieri.
Of the trio from Tuesday not to miss out through injury, Neuton and Alex Geijo dropped to the bench but Tommie Hoban was not involved.
Roberto Mancini also had selection issues this week but although he made three changes from the side that beat Stoke City 3-0 last time out in th Premier League, he still fielded a very strong line-up.
Pantilimon was given a run out in place of England keeper Joe Hart, Javi Garcia came in for Yaya Toure, who had gone away on African Cup of Nations duty, while Tevez replaced the injured Sergio Aguero. That meant Mario Balotelli had to be content with a place on the bench following his widely pictured training ground spat with his manager on Thursday.
The Hornets did indeed start with a 3-4-3 shape but it was the hosts who had the first sight of goal inside the opening minute when Gael Clichy knocked the ball down the left channel for Tevez to chase and he pulled the ball back for Edin Dzeko, who fired wide of Bond’s right-hand post.
The visitors soon had their first decent spell of possession around the City box though, and after Forestieri had seen one attempt blocked, Nathaniel Chalobah fired a second effort wide of Pantilimon’s right-hand upright.
Manicini’s men then forced three corners around the five-minute mark but Watford held firm before Doyley was forced to head behind a dangerous David Silva free-kick that had been flicked on towards the back post.
City’s corner count had risen to five by the ninth minute but their opponents’ new-look backline had started well and there was some more joy for Zola’s men in the 14th minute when Garcia became the first player to be booked for an over-zealous challenge on Chalobah.
Bond was forced into his first save two minutes later when he made a very sharp reaction stop at his near post to keep out a rising Pablo Zabaleta drive after a James Milner effort had been blocked.
Vincent Kompany was then afforded too much space as he advanced into midfield but his effort never threatened Bond’s goal as he slashed it wildly wide. The Hornets then had an even bigger break when Milner’s sixth corner of the match was turned goalwards by the captain and Dzeko appeared to help it over the line but the goal was ruled out for offside.
Bond was sharply out at the feet of Milner on the edge of the six-yard box but the England international still managed to get in a cross, but it was too high for Tevez in the middle.
However, City finally made their pressure tell in the 24th minute when Eustace could have no complaints after being booked for a foul on Tevez around 20 yards out and the Argentine striker picked himself up before hitting a right-footed free-kick like a rocket and the ball simply flew past the diving Bond to make it 1-0.
Within a minute though, the Hornets had missed a golden chance to level. Nosworthy’s ball forward was laid back by Deeney to Vydra, who put Forestieri clean though on goal but he was unable to capitalise on the one-v-one situation as Pantilimon denied him and a great opportunity to immediately get back on terms was gone.
Zabaleta received the third booking of the afternoon in the 29th minute for stupidly throwing the ball away after not getting the decision when he thought he had won a throw-in.
City’s corner count had risen to eight by the 37th minute after a powerfully-struck on-target shot from Silva had been deflected behind off the head of Nosworthy. Watford were generally doing fairly well as the interval approached though, but needed to do more with their spells of possession. And it was City who made the most of their next period with the ball to double their advantage a minute before the break.
Silva showed some lovely footwork as he advanced towards the left angle of the area before slipping in Milner, who clipped over the cross and Barry found space in the area to head down and wide of Bond to make it 2-0.
Zola made a change at the start of the second half, with Neuton replacing Daniel Pudil, but within a minute of the restart City could have scored a third when Tevez fizzed a low strike right across the face of goal.
Two minutes later though, Forestieri laid the ball back to Chalobah, who hit a shot with the outside of his right foot from the edge of the area that wasn’t too far wide of Pantilimon’s right-hand post.
Watford were keeping the ball better at the start of the second half and in the 54th minute Deeney was put through on goal on the left but his first touch was too heavy and in trying to keep the opportunity alive, he slid through Pantilimon and received a yellow card for the late challenge.
The next opening went City’s way in the 57th minute when Milner was played in following some neat build-up play but a fine challenge from Neuton deflected his effort away for the hosts’ tenth corner.
Another chance came and went soon after when Zabaleta released Milner on the right and Tevez was inches away from converting his low driven cross at the far post.
Zola decided to make a second change in the 63rd minute and brought on Geoffrey Mujangi Bia for Forestieri and soon after Vydra saw a shot deflected over for his side’s first corner of the match.
The Hornets were having a reasonable spell around the midway point of the second half, although the chances still kept going City’s way as Dzeko saw a header deflected over.
That was to be the big striker’s last involvement in the match as he was replaced by Balotelli on 70 minutes after Vydra had curled an effort wide for the visitors.
The first thing City’s enigmatic striker did was to receive the ball with his back to goal on the left angle of the area, take a couple of touches to shift it on to his right foot and then hit a powerful drive that Bond did well to get down to. But he was unable to hold on to the ball and Tevez looked odds on to convert the rebound, only to hit the side netting.
After Scott Sinclair had replaced Garcia, Tevez forced another good stop out of the Hornets keeper with a rising right-footed shot. However, Watford then countered and Marco Cassetti’s low centre from the right picked out Deeney, but the stretching Hornets striker was unable to keep his effort down.
City won a free-kick in a good shooting position after a foul by Bia as the contest entered the final ten minutes but Balotelli curled the set piece straight at Bond.
Eustace’s comeback was ended six minutes from time when he made way for Cristian Battocchio but moments before Deeney had seen a low strike deflected narrowly wide and into the side netting by Kompany. Then, from the resultant penalty, Neuton headed wide.
Balotelli should have at least tested Bond when he was presented with a free header from a deep free-kick, but his blushes at missing the target were spared by a linesman’s flag.
After Lopes had replaced Garcia, Deeney had his side’s third on-target effort of the afternoon with a strike from the edge of the area but it was straight at Pantilimon.
The Hornets had largely done well defensively in the second half but they did concede a third as the game entered injury time when Lopes was allowed to turn in the area. His first strike was saved by Bond but the substitute seized on the rebound to round off the scoring as his side advanced into round four.
Manchester City: Pantilimon; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; Milner, Garcia (Sinclair 74), Barry, Silva (Lopes 87), Tevez, Dzeko (Balotelli 70). Not used: Hart, Nastasic, Suarez and Rekik.
Watford: Bond; Doyley, Nosworthy, Ekstrand; Cassetti, Chalobah, Eustace (Battocchio 84), Pudil (Neuton 46); Forestieri (Bia 63), Deeney, Vydra. Not used: Yeates, Anya, Bonham and Geijo.
Bookings: Garcia for a foul on Chalobah (14); Eustace for a foul on Tevez (23); Zabaleta for dissent (29); Deeney for a foul on Pantilimon (54).
Referee: Phil Dowd.