A brave Watford performance which was laced with quality for large periods went unrewarded as the curse of the late goal struck yet again to give Queens Park Rangers a 2-1 victory at Loftus Road.
Unlike many of the efforts let in after the 85th minute of matches this season, the Hornets let another point slip because they were trying to be positive by committing numbers forward at a corner and get the win that would have moved them to within three points of the play-offs due to results elsewhere. As it is, the gap now stands at six points with Beppe Sannino's men having three to play, including a game in hand.
There were no goals in the first half but Watford were very impressive in the opening half-an-hour, dominating possession and playing with real purpose and confidence.
The best of their chances came in the tenth minute when Troy Deeney forced Rob Green into a good save but Rangers also needed last-gasp challenges from Nedum Onuoha and Armand Traore to prevent Deeney and Daniel Pudil having clear strikes on goal.
But the goal the Hornets so deserved arrived six minutes after the restart when Deeney headed down a Joel Ekstrand delivery and Mathias Ranegie spun away from Richard Dunne to fire home.
The visitors though, were guilty of conceding free-kicks around their penalty area on a number of occasions throughout the match and they were to do it once too often with 14 minutes remaining when Joey Barton curled in the equaliser from inside the D.
Watford almost immediately retook the lead when Nedum Onuoha headed off the line from Almen Abdi but as the visitors sought a win in the closing stages, they were opened up on the counter and Charlie Austin was finally able to curl home a shot from the edge of the penalty area to make mathematically certain of Rangers’ play-off spot.
Sannino hinted that he may make changes following Saturday’s 3-1 win over Ipswich Town but in the end he opted for just two. Marco Cassetti returned from his two-match suspension in place of Tommie Hoban, while Pudil was preferred to Davide Faraoni which meant Albert Riera switched to the right flank.
The same could not be said for the hosts as Harry Redknapp retained only three players who started the 1-0 defeat at Premier League-bound Leicester City – keeper Rob Green, Danny Simpson and Onuoha – although Benoit Assou-Ekotto was suspended after being sent off. Clint Hill, Barton and Kevin Doyle all returned following their respective injury problems.
Watford were quickly out of the blocks and had their first effort after 90 seconds when Riera squared for Lewis McGugan, who hit a first-time shot over the bar from 25 yards.
The Hornets continued to dominate possession in the early stages with Deeney hooking their next attempt from the edge of the penalty area after a free-kick had been nodded down by Ranegie.
The visitors continued to probe with Abdi setting Pudil away down the left side of the penalty area but an under-pressure Deeney was unable to turn the wing-back’s cross on target.
An even better opening came in the tenth minute when Dunne was unable to grow tall enough to get his head onto a Manuel Almunia clearance downfield, inadvertently flicking the ball on into the path of Deeney, who chose to take the shot early and Green had to get down to tip his low right-footed strike from 18 yards behind.
Rangers, playing a 3-4-1-2 formation, had been largely on the back foot but their first attempt came when Austin tried a right-footed curler from the left edge of the penalty area but Almunia was not unduly troubled.
Watford were soon asking questions again though, when Abdi won possession back in midfield and set Deeney away. The striker was unable to open up a shooting opportunity so laid the ball back to McGugan, but he rifled over from 25 yards.
The midfielder then turned creator rather than attempted finisher, playing in a dangerous inswinging cross from the left that Ranegie’s outstretched leg was just unable to connect with. Next Abdi found the advancing Gabriele Angella in space midway inside the Rangers half, he clipped the ball forward, Deeney brought it down but as he was shaping to pull the trigger Onuoha got back to clear behind for the Hornets’ fifth corner of the half so far.
The pressure continued on Green’s goal with McGugan having another strike, this time on the turn from the left side of the area deflected behind before he saw a right-footed curler held with relative ease by the Rangers keeper. In between times though, Almunia had to be watchful to hold onto a dipping Simpson angled volley after Austin had gone down in the area after being held off by Cassetti, with referee James Linington immediately waving away any claims for a penalty.
The home side then needed Traore to come to their rescue, making a superb last-ditch challenge to prevent Pudil having a clear shot on goal after Watford had opened up Rangers far too easily on the counter - Almunia catching a Joey Barton corner and then rolling the ball to Ekstrand who just waited for his moment to play in his teammate as he accelerated into space upfield.
Redknapp’s side had finally started to cause some problems as the opening half drew to a close and they had an opportunity three minutes before the break after McGugan committed a foul towards the right edge of the area, but Ravel Morrison fired the free-kick over the top.
The home side had another opportunity from almost exactly the same position, again after another McGugan foul, and Tom Carroll took the set piece on this occasion, curling a left-footed effort towards the far post where Almunia was forced to punch to safety to ensure the game remained goalless at the interval.
It took the Hornets less than a minute to create their first chance after the restart, Angella crossing from the right and Ranegie nodding the ball back to Abdi, who hooked his first-time left-footed finish over the top.
Soon after, the visitors attacked three-on-three with Abdi slipping the ball to Deeney, who crossed towards the back post where Ranegie had peeled off into space. He headed back across the six-yard area, taking Green out of the game but Barton did just enough to prevent Deeney from getting on the end of it.
The goal the Hornets so richly deserved nearly arrived in the 50th minute when a quickly-taken Daniel Tozser free-kick caught Rangers napping and Deeney connected superbly with a rising drive which Green had to athletically palm over.
With their next opportunity though, Watford were to finally convert all their good approach work into the lead.
Ekstrand played a delivery towards the back post where Deeney got up well to win a header and cushion it back into the path of Ranegie who spun Dunne before firing a left-footed finish beyond Green to make it 1-0.
Abdi sliced an effort over the top as the Hornets pressed for a quick second but the visitors then picked up a rash of bookings, Riera, Ranegie and Abdi all seeing yellow within four minutes of each other for fouls on Carroll, Onuoha and Morrison respectively.
Sannino made his first move after 62 minutes, freshening up the midfield by replacing McGugan with Cristian Battocchio, before Morrison forced Almunia to hold a drive from the edge of the area after showing good skill to beat four opponents.
Rangers were beginning to up the ante midway through the second half and Pudil needed to make a vital clearance from just in front of his goalline to clear an Austin header before Redknapp made a double change, replacing Doyle and Simpson with Bobby Zamora and Junior Hoilett.
Almunia was forced into action again in the 75th minute, springing to his left to push away an Austin shot after a lapse from Angella had given the striker the chance to get the ball under control.
The Hornets had been guilty of giving away free-kicks in dangerous positions and it was to prove their undoing in the 76th minute.
This time Ranegie was the guilty party, committing a foul on the D and Almunia was left rooted as Barton curled a right-footed set piece into the net to make it 1-1.
Rangers were very almost not level for long though. Watford attacked straight from the kick-off and Deeney worked the ball over to the left side of the penalty area where Battocchio knocked it back to Abdi, who saw his attempted right-footed finish headed off the line and over the bar by Onuoha.
Austin was booked with five minutes remaining for clattering into the back of Riera before the Hornets suffered the agony of conceding yet another late goal, although this was predominantly caused by their desire to try and win the game.
Having forced a couple of corners, the visitors were caught with bodies upfield as Rangers countered, at one stage having five-against-one when the ball was worked to the left side of the pitch. Ekstrand and Battocchio managed to get back to make challenges and it looked like the threat might be averted, but the ball fell to Austin on the edge of the area and he curled a right-footed shot past Almunia to score what proved to be the winner.
The scorer was immediately replaced by Karl Henry as the Hornets were left to collectively trudge from the pitch with their heads down at the final whistle, wondering what might have been.
Queens Park Rangers: Green; Onuoha, Dunne, Hill; Simpson (Hoilett 73), Barton, Carroll, Traore; Morrison; Austin (Henry 90), Doyle (Zamora 73). Not used: Murphy, Keane, Yun, Hughes.
Watford: Almunia; Angella, Cassetti, Ekstrand; Riera, Abdi, Tozser, McGugan (Battocchio 62), Pudil; Deeney, Ranegie. Not used: Bond, Merkel, Doyley, Murray, Faraoni, Hoban.
Bookings: Riera for a foul on Carroll (56); Ranegie for a foul on Onuoha (58); Abdi for a foul on Morrison (60); Austin for a foul on Riera (85).
Attendance: 16,951 (1,773 away).
Referee: James Linington.