Watford endured an afternoon to forget at the Reebok Stadium as two first-half goals were enough to give Bolton Wanderers a comfortable 2-0 win in the Championship.
The Hornets were defensively lacklustre in the first period and paid the full price as Lukas Jutkiewicz opened the scoring with a close-range finish before the lively Joe Mason made it two on the stroke of half-time.
Watford switched to 4-3-3 early in the second period but in truth it was the home side who came closest to adding another goal and Beppe Sannino’s side had Manuel Almunia to thank for keeping the scoreline respectable.
The result comes as a blow to the Hornets’ lingering hopes of a late play-off push although the gap remains eight points after sixth-placed Reading lost against Blackburn Rovers.
Bolton went into the match without a victory in eight matches but with cause for optimism having only lost one of their last seven games against Watford.
Sannino made three changes to the side that drew at Yeovil. Chu-Young Park was handed his first start for the club since joining on loan from Arsenal while Sean Murray came into the midfield in place of Cristian Battocchio and Davide Faraoni replaced Daniel Pudil at wing-back.
Bolton made just one change as Mason was selected ahead of former Hornet Chris Eagles and it was the Cardiff City loanee who had the first chance of the contest.
Marco Cassetti was momentarily off the pitch receiving attention to his knee strapping and the hosts took full advantage, slipping Mason through for a one on one but his low shot was denied by the foot of Almunia.
Watford created a chance of their own moments later as Ikechi Anya sped past Alex Baptiste and crossed for Troy Deeney who should have scored from six yards out but found the grateful hands of Adam Bogdan with his header.
Mason was causing the Hornets all sorts of problems with his pace and direct running and in the 16th minute he went even closer to finding the breakthrough.
The 22-year-old latched on to a through ball, shrugged off the challenge of Gabriele Angella and went round Almunia but as he looked set to roll the ball into an open net, Watford’s Faraoni appeared out of nowhere to slide the ball out for a corner.
Mason had another go from the resulting corner but his flicked header was straight at the keeper.
Watford emerged from an edgy five minutes unscathed and Alexander Merkel teed up Deeney on the edge of the box but the striker skewed his half-volley wide.
Faraoni was arguably the Hornets’ brightest attacking outlet in the early stages and the Italian tested Bogdan with a fizzing effort in the 24th minute before moments later winning a free-kick on the edge of the box. Daniel Tozser shot into the wall and then fired the rebound narrowly wide.
The game began to settle down after a ten-minute spell full of chances but Bolton continued to look dangerous, particularly from set-pieces where Watford were regularly being beaten to the ball.
In the 34th minute, it proved costly as Jay Spearing crossed a free-kick low from the right and the ball somehow found its way to the back post where Jutkiewicz side-footed home.
Bolton then enjoyed the majority of possession before half-time and carved out another opening, again from a set-piece, as this time David Wheater headed over from a free-kick.
Watford looked ready for the interval but Bolton had other ideas and grabbed a crucial second goal just before the break as Mason again got in behind and this time made no mistake, slotting the ball past Almunia for a 2-0 lead.
Within minutes of the restart, Cassetti came off for Daniel Pudil as Watford switched to 4-3-3 with Pudil at left back and Ikechi Anya playing in a front three with Deeney and Park.
Just before the hour mark, Bolton’s Medo went close with a free-kick but but his bending shot from 25 yards flew narrowly over the bar.
The home side looked the more likely to score and in the 59th minute, Mason played a reverse pass into Neil Danns who crossed to the back post where Mark Davies mishit his finish. The ball found its way back to Danns who acrobatically volleyed into the hands of Almunia.
Sannino threw Battocchio on for Merkel while Mathias Ranegie replaced Park who had a quiet debut albeit with very little service.
Ranegie had a chance to score almost immediately as Deeney tussled with Wheater and ball spilled out to the substitute who dragged his shot wide.
Overall though the second half changes had little effect as Bolton continued to enjoy more possession and the better openings.
In a rare foray forward, Tozser crossed from the left and the ball dropped out to Murray on the edge of the box but his rasping shot was straight at the keeper.
In the 75th minute, Battocchio tested Bogdan with a dipping shot from range but a minute later, the best chance of the half fell to Bolton.
Mason latched on to another through ball in behind Angella and as the striker bore down on goal Almunia did brilliantly to close down the space and smother the shot.
As the Hornets committed men forward looking for a lifeline the game opened up for Bolton who should have added a third when Jutkiewicz accelerated past Joel Ekstrand and found Chu-Yong Lee at the back post but the substitute opted to square the ball back and the chance was lost.
There were six minutes of added time but Watford were unable to stage any sort of late rally and with the final whistle blown, their winless run away from home was extended to 12 matches.
Bolton Wanderers: Bogdan, Wheater, Mills, Ream, Baptiste, Spearing, Medo, Davies (Lee, 80), Pratley (Danns, 24), Jutkiewicz, Mason (Trotter, 87)
Not used subs: Lonergan, Hall, Knight, Eagles
Watford: Almunia; Angella, Cassetti (Pudil, 48), Ekstrand; Faraoni, Merkel (Battocchio, 62), Tozser, Murray, Anya; Deeney, Park (Ranegie, 62)
Not used subs: Bond, Belkalem, Doyley, Hoban
Attendance: 15,179 (638 away)
Referee: Frederick Graham