Watford’s unbeaten run under Beppe Sannino is over after they were beaten 1-0 by Reading at Vicarage Road – although they will be wondering how they didn’t take at least a point from the game.
Kaspars Gorkss scored what turned out to be the winner after just five minutes but the Hornets had several good opportunities in the second half to get on back on terms.
The hosts though, were to finish the game with ten men after Alexander Merkel was shown a straight red card in injury time for a reckless challenge on Nick Blackman.
Merkel was given his Hornets debut as Beppe Sannino made four changes from the side which drew 1-1 at Bristol City in the FA Cup last week.
The Udinese loan signing was deployed in the holding midfield role as Lloyd Doyley came back into the starting line-up, along with Hector Bellerin and the fit-again Daniel Pudil.
Nyron Nosworthy, Cristian Battocchio and Iriney dropped to a bench which also included Fernando Forestieri and Davide Faraoni following their respective injuries but Marco Cassetti missed out with a knee problem. There was also a change in the replacement goalkeepers with Gary Woods replacing Jonathan Bond, who was ill.
Reading went out of the FA Cup following a 1-0 defeat at Brighton & Hove Albion seven days previously and boss Nigel Adkins made five changes to his side.
In came goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, Danny Williams, Hope Akpan, former Hornet and skipper Jobi McAnuff and Pavel Pogrebnyak. Adam Federici, Stephen Kelly, Jake Taylor and Blackman dropped to the bench, while Danny Guthrie missed out through injury.
Manuel Almunia was forced into action in the opening 20 seconds when he had to punch away a dangerus Garath McCleary cross from the right. The Royals continued to threaten in the early stages but their hosts almost enjoyed an opening in the fourth minute when Gorkss got just enough on Sean Murray’s slide-rule pass to take some of the pace off the ball and McCarthy was able to gather before Troy Deeney could latch on it.
But Reading’s promising start was rewarded when they made the breakthrough in the fifth minute.
The visitors were awarded the first corner of the match when a Jordan Obita shot from the edge of the area was deflected behind and it was the Royals left-back who took the set piece from the right, sending an in-swinging delivery towards the near post where Gorkss got the first run to flick a header past the helpless Almunia and make it 1-0, although there were suggestions the last touch may have come off Lewis McGugan.
The midfielder had the Hornets’ first attempt three minutes later when he dragged a shot wide from 25 yards but the home side were nearly punished again when McAnuff latched on to a loose pass from Merkel, who had made a rusty start to the game, and accelerated inside off the left flank before hitting a shot from the edge of the area back across goal and not too far wide of Almunia’s right-hand post.
Adam Le Fondre was the first player to be booked for delaying a free-kick in the 17th minute and when McGugan was eventually able to take it, his right-footed effort from 25 yards spun up off the top of the wall and McCarthy was able to claim with relative ease.
The Hornets were coming more into the game though, and they had another opportunity when Bellerin got in down the right and his attempted ball into the near post was superbly cut out by Alex Pearce as Deeney tried to get across the front of him. However, the ball broke to the edge of the penalty area where Merkel went for precision rather than power and McCarthy was able to save.
But Reading had another chance in the 23rd minute when McAnuff won a free-kick close to the goalline on the left and his lofted delivery was met by Pavel Pogrebnyak, but he was unable to keep his header beneath the bar.
The game then went into something of a malaise, but the visitors continued to look the more composed of the two teams, until the 35th minute when Watford were awarded a free-kick on the left side of the area and McGugan’s dangerous far-post delivery was cut out by Obita with Pudil and Gabriele Angella both waiting to attack with their heads.
McGugan again did well two minutes later to get down the left side of the penalty area and, under pressure, squeeze in a cross but both Deeney and Diego Fabbrini got attracted to the near post and the ball bypassed them both.
The pressure continued with Fabbrini playing a lovely incisive pass that picked out Pudil towards the left of the 18-yard box, he pulled the ball back and Murray was superbly placed to convert but he couldn’t reach the ball with an outstretched leg.
McGugan was again involved moments later when he whipped in another good delivery from a free-kick, this time from a deeper position, but Pudil was unable to get on the end of it at the far post.
Merkel received his first yellow card in English football two minutes before the break for a foul on Pogrebnyak as the Hornets ended the opening period trailing.
Danny Williams fired the first shot of the second half over from an angle after the visitors had taken a corner but six minutes after the break a precise Bellerin delivery from the right picked out the unmarked Deeney but he was unable to direct his header past McCarthy.
Williams fired another long-range effort over the top but then Le Fondre wasn’t too far away from adding a second, fizzing a rising drive wide after Pogrebnyak had headed a cross-field ball down to him on the edge of the area.
Sannino made his first change in the 54th minute, bringing on Forestieri for Bellerin and switching to a 4-3-3 formation, and then the visitors picked up two bookings in quick succession, with Obita and McAnuff seeing yellow for fouls on McGugan and Fabbrini respectively.
The temperature was rising and Watford weren’t too far away from levelling in the 62nd minute when Forestieri’s blind-side ball released McGugan on the right side of the area, his pull back ran across to the opposite side of the 18-yard box where Pudil drove it back in and Deeney turned the ball goal-wards, only for McCarthy to palm it over the top.
An even better chance came and went soon after when, with the game becoming increasingly stretched, Deeney was released on the right and his pin-point delivery picked out an unmarked Forestieri, who missed the target from six yards out.
McGugan then drove forward and fired wide from 20 yards before the Hornets contrived to miss another great chance in the 67th minute.
Fabbrini initially looked like he had delayed too long on the edge of the penalty area before laying the ball out to the supporting Doyley on the right and he squared for Deeney, who snatched at his finish and lifted it over the top.
Doyley was again involved offensively when he fed McGugan to his right and the former Nottingham Forest man laid the ball inside to Angella, who hit a first-time effort wide of the near post.
The Hornets’ second change came in the 73rd minute when Battocchio replaced Murray and, after McCarthy had saved an angled drive from McGugan with his legs, Faraoni came on for Doyley.
Watford had been well on top but they survived a scare with ten minutes remaining when a free-kick from the right fell beyond the far post for McCleary, he lifted the ball in, Le Fondre flung himself at it and missed and Pogrebnyak was only able to head the ball back in the direction it came.
Blackman then replaced Akpan before Forestieri was booked for diving, even though he seemed to be taken out on the edge of the penalty area.
Shaun Cummings came on for Obita with six minutes left and then McCleary made way for Taylor, whose first involvement was to get away down the right and send over a deep cross which Pogrebnyak couldn’t divert back on target from past the far post.
Forestieri sent a ridiculous ambitious volley high and wide from the left outer edge of the penalty area as the game entered five minutes of additional time before Faraoni managed to work an opening on the opposite side of the 18-yard box but his attempt across goal also missed the target.
Merkel had been walking a disciplinary tightrope after his earlier booking but he could have few complaints at his fate in injury time after a reckless lunge on Blackman ended in a straight red card.
Blackman’s indiscipline was then to offer Watford one last opportunity. He was booked for a foul on Angella around 25 yards out, McGugan hit the free-kick low and hard towards the far corner but McCarthy pushed it behind.
Before Watford could take the corner though, referee Keith Stroud blew the final whistle, much to the annoyance of Pudil in particular who was booked for his protests.
Watford: Almunia; Doyley (Faraoni 78), Angella, Ekstrand; Bellerin (Forestieri 54), McGugan, Merkel, Murray (Battocchio 73), Pudil; Fabbrini, Deeney. Not used: Woods, Hall, Iriney, Nosworthy.
Reading: McCarthy; Gunter, Pearce, Gorkss, Obita (Cummings 84); McCleary (J Taylor 87), Williams, Akpan (Blackman 82), McAnuff; LeFondre, Pogrebnyak. Not used: Federici, Kelly, Drenthe, Hector.
Bookings: LeFondre for delaying a free-kick (17); Merkel for a foul on Pogrebnyak (43); Obita for a foul on McGugan (56); McAnuff for a foul on Fabbrini (58); Forestieri for simulation (83); Merkel sent off for a foul on Blackman (90); Blackman for a foul on Angella (90); Pudil for dissent (after final whistle).
Attendance: 15,725 (1,636 away).
Referee: Keith Stroud.