Watford sit second in the Championship tonight after Matej Vydra’s 20th league goal of the season and Joel Ekstrand's first for the Hornets helped them battle to a 2-1 victory over Derby County at Vicarage Road.
Alex Geijo, Ekstrand and Ikechi Anya could, and probably should, have put Watford at least a goal in front before Vyrdra showed them how it should be done with an exquisite finish to make it 1-0 after 35 minutes.
It looked the Hornets had made the game safe midway through the second half when Ekstrand bundled in an Almen Abdi corner to score his first goal in yellow after Manuel Almunia had been forced off through injury at the end of the first period.
Although Jamie Ward halved the deficit from the penalty spot five minutes later, Gianfranco Zola’s men held on for the three points on a day when promotion rivals Hull City and Crystal Palace were both beaten and Leicester City could only draw.
It wasn’t particularly pretty at times, but the Hornets once again showed the ability to grind it and leave their automatic promotion fate in their own hands with 12 games to go as they closed the gap to five points on leaders Cardiff City.
Like for the 2-0 win at Ipswich Town on Tuesday night, Zola opted to make three changes as his side sought to go through a calendar month unbeaten for the first time this season.
Cristian Battocchio came in for Jonathan Hogg in midfield, Vydra returned for Fernando Forestieri, while Geijo started a game for the first time since the 2-0 defeat at Bristol City as Troy Deeney was rested to the bench. This meant the Hornets strikers started a match together for the first time since the 6-1 victory at Leeds United in November.
Nigel Clough made just the one change to the side that drew 1-1 against Bolton Wanderers last time out, with Ben Davies replacing Kieron Freeman at right-back.
The Hornets were quickly out of the traps and missed a great opportunity to take the lead in the sixth minute. Vydra showed superb strength and tenacity to get in between the Rams’ central defensive pairing of Richard Keogh and John Brayford and squeeze in a shot which keeper Adam Legzdins was quickly off his line to block. However, the ball ran to Geijo on the edge of the area and he tried to steer it into the unguarded net with a cushioned right-footed half-volley, only to slice it wide.
Another chance came the hosts’ way soon after when Anya’s cross from the left reached Marco Cassetti on the opposite side of the area and he struck a powerful shot which the keeper managed to parry out to safety.
Derby had been on the back foot in their opening stages but they carved out their first opening in the tenth minute when Jeff Hendrick found Ward on the right side of the area and he came back inside on his left foot before curling a shot wide of Almunia’s right-hand post.
It took a superb challenge from Keogh to prevent Vydra having a clear run on goal after almost being picked out by Geijo’s pass. The Hornets then got a little sloppy though, and were perhaps fortunate not to be punished when a Michael Jacobs shot was partially blocked and almost broke to one of three unmarked team-mates but Almunia was able to save.
After the game had gone through a quiet spell, Anya injected some life into it when he showed superb skill down the left, including a lovely flick over his own head, to break into the area. Although he was unable to pick a team-mate out with his low centre, Watford kept the attack going, which reached its next stage with Geijo setting up Vydra for a right-footed strike which was deflected behind. Almen Abdi took the set-piece from the right and his delivery was allowed to bounce in the area and run to Ekstrand who, from six yards out, blasted horribly over the top when he should at least have hit the target.
That was a bad miss by the hosts and another one was to follow in the 33rd minute. It started when Geijo received the ball near halfway with his back to goal, he turned it around the corner to Vydra, who managed to get in ahead of the Derby backline and then sprinted clear. It was perhaps a surprise the Hornets top scorer did not go it alone but he unselfishly squared to Anya, who contrived to miss a largely unguarded net from six yards out.
The Hornets had not been playing that well but could quite easily have been 3-0 up. But they were not to be so wasteful with their next opportunity in the 35th minute when the home side’s striking ace reached a significant landmark.
Again Geijo was the creator, again finding Vydra, who sprinted clear from around 40 yards out before hitting a lovely low right-footed finish from 18 yards which rebounded off the inside of Legzdins’ near post and rolled across the line before nestling in the opposite corner of the net to make it 1-0 with his 20th league goal of the campaign.
Having taken the lead, the Hornets suffered a serious blow two minutes before the break when Nyron Nosworthy played his keeper into trouble near the right side of the penalty and after tangling with Ward, Almunia went down holding his left hamstring. The former Arsenal stopper tried to continue after receiving treatment but after catching one ball, he immediately threw it into touch and signalled to the bench that he could not continue.
Jonathan Bond came on and was soon involved in the action, making a confidence-boosting solid save to hold on to Craig Bryson’s effort from the right side of the area.
Ben Davies became the first player to be booked in first-half stoppage time after scything down Vydra. Abdi’s resultant free-kick from left of centre around 22 yards couldn’t beat the wall but the ball broke for Anya, whose right-footed strike from the edge of the area was fumbled back into the box by Legzdins before the ball was hacked to safety.
Clough made a double change at the start of the second half, with Jake Buxton coming on for Michael Hoganson and new signing Chris Martin replacing Jacobs.
Conor Sammon hit an early shot wide after the restart and then Bryson saw an effort blocked around five minutes later as the Hornets found attacking opportunities hard to come by in the early stages after the resumption.
Watford’s first effort of the second period came in the 56th minute when, following a throw-in from the left, a Geijo back heel released Abdi on the left side of the area and he tried to catch Legzdins out with a toe-poke towards the near post but the keeper was not deceived.
Ward then saw yellow after leaving Anya in heap but as the half progressed, the Hornets were still struggling to get going and while not living dangerously, they weren’t making the game too comfortable for themselves either. But that looked like it had all changed in the 68th minute.
Cassetti tried an ambitious shot from a tight angle on the right side of the area following a deep Vydra cross which was deflected behind. Abdi took the set piece from the right and Ekstrand went to connect with his head, the ball appeared to strike his chest but it was still enough to take it past Legzdins and make it 2-0.
Within five minutes though, Derby were given hope when referee Mark Haywood awarded them what looked a soft penalty for an apparent push at a corner but Ward made no mistake, slamming the shot down the centre of the goal to bring it back to 2-1.
Just prior to that goal, Mason Bennett had replaced Sammon and then after the spot-kick Zola made his first change as Hogg came on for Geijo.
The Hornets could have made the points safe with 11 minutes left when Anya was sent racing clear on the left but he failed to pick out Vydra after squaring across the area. However, Vydra managed to win it back and after poleaxing Keogh with one shot, Battocchio then tried a curler from the edge of the box which wasn’t too far wide.
By the same token though, Derby were inches away from levelling when Ward slid in and only just failed to connect in the six-yard box with a Paul Coutts delivery which was fizzed in low from the right.
Watford wasted another great counter-attacking opportunity with three minutes remaining when Abdi sent Hogg away into space down the left, he squared for Vydra, but the Czech international’s first touch was poor and the chance went begging.
Vydra was replaced by Deeney for the closing stages but the Hornets were able to play most of the three minutes of injury time in the opposition half to make it three wins in succession and 13 points out of a possible 15 in a very successful February.
Watford: Almunia (Bond 45); Doyley, Nosworthy, Ekstrand; Cassetti, Battocchio, Chalobah, Abdi, Anya; Geijo (Hogg 75), Vydra (Deeney 88). Not used: Yeates, Forsyth, Murray and Forestieri.
Derby County: Legzdins; Davies, Keogh, Brayford, Hoganson (Buxton 46); Coutts, Hendrick, Bryson, Jacobs (Martin 46); Ward, Sammon (Bennett 72). Not used: Fielding, Doyle, Gjokaj and Hanson.
Bookings: Davies for a foul on Vydra (45); Ward for a foul on Battocchio (57).
Attendance: 14,425 (929 away).
Referee: Mark Haywood.
More Pictures here