The gap to the Championship’s top six is down to six points after Watford again rolled up their sleeves to battle to a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough in a game which saw both sides play the last half-an-hour with ten men.

The Hornets improved as a relatively low key and uneventful first half had progressed, although the visitors thought they had taken the lead when Jonathan Woodgate headed a Grant Leadbitter free-kick past Jonathan Bond but it was ruled out for offside.

But there was nothing flat about the opening to the second period as the first 15 minutes contained a penalty and two red cards.

Troy Deeney made the breakthrough within five minutes of the restart from 12 yards after Ben Gibson had brought down Fernando Forestieri, only for the Hornets to be reduced to ten men soon after when Samba Diakite was shown a straight red card for a two-footed challenge.

But Gibson ensured the red card count was soon evened up as he picked up a needless second yellow card for trying to prevent Bond from clearing his lines.

Beppe Sannino made four changes from the side which beat Birmingham City on Tuesday night, two of which were injury enforced.

Captain and goalkeeper Manuel Almunia missed out with a calf injury, Joel Ekstrand was sidelined with the knee problem which forced him off midway through the first half in midweek while Cristian Battocchio and Alexander Merkel dropped to the bench. Their places were taken by Bond, Lloyd Doyley – who moved into seventh place in his own right on the Hornets’ all-time appearance list having pulled level with Kenny Jackett on Tuesday – Sean Murray and Diakite, who made his full debut.

Middlesbrough came into the game on the back of three successive goalless draws and Aitor Karanka made just the one change from the team which held Blacburn Rovers at home last time out as Albert Adomah replaced Mustapha Carayol, meaning Hornets old boys Danny Graham and Nathaniel Chalobah both started.

The Hornets lined up with Daniel Tozser still playing the holding midfielder’s role, despite Diakite’s presence in the starting line-up for the first time, against a Boro side playing a 4-2-3-1 formation.

The opening exchanges were relatively flat as both sides felt their way into the contest and it took until the eighth minute for the first goal attempt to arrive as Leadbitter screwed an ambitious attempt well wide from 25 yards.

Boro had most of the early possession and they had the next effort in the 14th minute when Emmanuel Ledesma fired wide of Bond’s near post.

Another one followed two minutes later when Ledesma spread the ball out to Adomah on the left and the winger came inside before hitting a low drive which Bond held by the foot of his near post.

The Hornets finally offered a threat on their opponents’ goal in the 19th minute when Daniel Pudil came inside off the left flank to receive a pass and slipped it sideways to Forestieri, whose 20-yard shot was deflected behind for a corner.

Murray missed the target with an improvised attempt with the outside of his right foot soon after before there were some enquiring looks from the visitors in the direction of Oliver Langford when George Friend was challenged in the area, but the referee was unmoved.

Graham had his first chance to shine in the 28th minute when he was found by an Adomah pass from the left but the former Watford striker went for a chip that cleared Bond’s crossbar.

The Hornets’ next opportunity came moments later when they built down the left and although Murray was fouled, the referee played advantage as Forestieri advanced before laying the ball across the face of the penalty area in the direction of Deeney, who dummied to Pudil, but he screwed his first-time left-footed strike wide of Shay Given’s near post.

Gibson received the game’s first yellow card in the 35th minute when he went through the back of Deeney. But the Boro defender was quickly joined in the notebook by Marco Cassetti for a clear body check on Leadbitter. From the resultant free-kick on the left, Boro thought they had taken the lead when Woodgate headed past Bond but the assistant’s flag was already raised for offside.

Deeney had the Hornets’ first on-target attempt in the 40th minute when his looping header from a Davide Faraoni cross was comfortably held by Given. Soon after, Tozser whipped in a free-kick from the left but a stretching Forestieri was unable to keep his far-post effort down under pressure from Chalobah.

Forestieri snatched another effort from distance wide in the last minute of normal time in the first half after Gabriele Angella had won the ball in midfield and showed good determination to ride a few challenges.

The Hornets made a change at the start of the second period but it was a significant moment for Tommie Hoban as he made his long-awaited return from injury in place of Doyley. Boro also made an adjustment as Carayol replaced Ledesma.

Within four minutes of the restart though, the hosts were given a great opportunity to take the lead as Forestieri beat Gibson on the left side of the penalty area and was taken down near the by-line. Langford had no doubts, immediately pointing to the spot and Deeney calmly sent Given the wrong way to move within one goal of reaching his half-century for the club and make it 1-0.

Having made the breakthrough, Diakite immediately made the task for his teammates that bit harder when he stupidly jumped into a challenge on Dean Whitehead two-footed and Langford reached for his back pocket to show the on-loan Queens Park Rangers midfielder a red card.

It almost got worse for Watford moments later as the ball was worked to Graham on the edge of the area and he hit a right-footed shot which was deflected narrowly wide of Bond’s near post with the keeper rooted.

The momentum was now with Boro but a moment of madness from Gibson ensured his side would also be reduced to ten men in the 57th minute.

Having already been booked in the first half, the Boro defender foolishly tried to prevent Bond from clearing his lines, the referee spotted it and a second yellow card was quickly followed by a red.

The cards continued to be flourished as Forestieri and Chalobah were both booked for squaring up to each other in the 59th minute and five minutes later Jozsef Varga also went into the book for a foul on Forestieri.

Sannino used that stoppage in play to make his second change, bringing on Ikechi Anya for Forestieri and six minutes later came the home side’s final alteration as Battocchio replaced Forestieri.

Bond needed two attempts to hold a Carayol shot from inside the D soon after before Varga made way for Curtis Main.

No sooner had that change been made though, the Hornets spurned a great chance to get the cushion of a second goal as the home side sprung the counter with Anya outpacing Whitehead to go through on goal, but as he closed in on Given he dragged his shot wide of the far post.

Bond comfortably held a Graham header from a Whitehead cross as Boro tried to look for a way back into the contest, Friend saw a drilled shot from the left angle of the area blocked before Graham put another attempt over from outside the 18-yard box.

Kei Kamara came on for Woodgate as Karanka continued to bolster his offensive options on the pitch and while Tozser had a shot saved by Given, it was getting frenetic in the Hornets defence at times as the visitors continued to seek a late reply.

Five minutes of stoppage time offered Boro further hope and they could have salvaged something when a cross from the left was helped back into the danger zone by Leadbitter but Graham couldn’t get enough power on his header to beat Bond as Watford moved up to 12th in the table off the back of a sixth clean sheet in their last seven games in all competitions at Vicarage Road.

Watford: Bond; Doyley (Hoban 46), Cassetti, Angella; Faraoni (Anya 64), Murray, Tozser, Diakite, Pudil; Forestieri (Battocchio 70), Deeney. Not used: Woods, Bellerin, Merkel, Park.

Middlesbrough: Given; Varga (Main 73), Woodgate (Kamara 83), Gibson, Friend; Whitehead, Chalobah; Ledesma (Carayol 46), Leadbitter, Adomah; Graham. Not used: Konstantopoulos, Butterfield, Hines, Omeruo.

Bookings: Gibson for a foul on Deeney (35); Cassetti for a foul on Leadbitter (37); Diakite for a foul on Whitehead – sent off (52); Gibson for a foul on Bond – sent off (57); Chalobah for squaring up to Forestieri (59); Forestieri for squaring up to Chalobah (59); Varga for a foul on Forestieri (64).

Attendance: 15,391 (1,258 away).

Referee: Oliver Langford.