Derby County showed why they and not Watford are destined for the play-offs after winning 4-2 at the iPro Stadium after the Hornets were reduced to ten men for the final quarter of the match.
The visitors shocked their hosts by taking the lead with yet another early goal, Troy Deeney firing emphatically home after being found by Cristian Battocchio for the fifth minute.
For much of the first half though, the Hornets were totally out-of-sorts. Their ball retention was awful at times, their organisation was poor on occasions and they were very fortunate not to concede more than once before the break as Jeff Hendrick levelled affairs in the 28th minute.
Watford did improve to a degree after the break but a fine finish from former Vicarage Road left-back Craig Forsyth fired the home side in front before Marco Cassetti was sent off for a second yellow card.
The writing seemed to be on the wall at that point but no sooner had the Hornets been reduced to ten men then they were level as Mathias Ranegie headed in an Ikechi Anya cross.
But Derby were to make their numerical advantage and all-round superiority count as Hendrick rifled home a fine third from distance before Chris Martin rounded off the scoring.
Beppe Sannino was forced into three changes from the side that suffered the agonising late 2-1 defeat at Queens Park Rangers, all due to injury.
Keeper Manuel Almunia was ruled out with an Achilles problem, while knee injuries sidelined Gabriele Angella and Almen Abdi. In came Jonathan Bond, Lloyd Doyley and Battocchio while Academy striker Alex Jakubiak was on the bench for the first time alongside the fit-again Anya.
Play-off-bound Derby County were unchanged from the team that made it four straight victories with a 2-1 win against Barnsley on Easter Monday which meant Hornets old boys Forsyth and George Thorne both started, Hemel Hempstead-born Lee Grant was in goal and former Vicarage Road skipper John Eustace was among the replacements.
The match got off to a leisurely start but there was nothing too sedate about Cassetti’s fourth-minute challenge on Johnny Russell that resulted in the first free-kick of the afternoon and a yellow card for the Italian.
Russell fired well over the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area after the Hornets had dealt well enough with the set-piece delivery into the box. Within a minute Sannino’s men were to be in front.
Battocchio was the creator with a through ball towards the right side of the area and Deeney ran on to it and crashed a right-footed shot past Grant and into the roof of the net to make it 1-0 and score his 23rd of the season in fine style.
The goalscorer then turned defender as he blocked well-struck efforts from Jamie Ward and Russell before, in the 14th minute, Ward got on the end of the Rams’ second corner of the match but lifted the ball over the top.
Ward caused more problems a minute later, capitalising on Joel Ekstrand’s decision to commit himself too early to try and win the ball near the left touchline and advancing before curling a dangerous low centre across the six-yard box which Russell was unable to get on the end of.
The Hornets were not helping themselves at this stage by being careless with possession while Albert Riera was booked in the 22nd minute for taking exception to a challenge from Forsyth and swinging an arm back at the defender.
Derby spurned a great chance to level a minute later when a ball in from the right sat up ideally for Martin on the edge of the six-yard area but the opportunity seemed to catch the striker by surprise and he dragged it badly wide.
Martin had another opening soon after when he fired wide of the near post before Watford had their first sight of goal since scoring as Lewis McGugan fired an ambitious effort over from 20 yards.
Craig Bryson had a shot from a similar range deflected behind at the other end as Derby continued to probe and their pressure finally told in the 28th minute when Daniel Pudil was unable to head away a Forsyth cross from the left and the ball sat up nicely for Hendrick, who took one touch to control before stabbing it past Bond.
Having been pegged back, Watford were very fortunate not to fall behind two minutes later when a ball from the left found a gaping hole on the right side of the defence leaving Ward with only Bond to beat. But the keeper read the striker’s intentions and saved well with his legs.
The Hornets were in real danger of getting over-run at this point, not least because they were unable to keep the ball for long enough to ease the pressure on themselves. The Rams’ next opening came when a lovely turn by Martin took Ekstrand and Daniel Tozser oiut of the game before finding Ward, this time coming in from the left and he fired wide from the edge of the area.
Having been very poor for the most part in the first half, the visitors did manage to string some passes together to create an opening five minutes before the break when McGugan played a give-and-go with Ranegie before forcing Grant into a smart save with an angled shot but the flag was already raised for offside.
Hendrick shot wide of Bond’s right-hand post from 20 yards after Ranegie had become the latest player in maroon to needlessly give away possession, although the visitors did have one more chance before the interval when McGugan threatened to set Riera away in space on the right side of the penalty area but his eventual effort was blocked.
Sannino no doubt had some strong words to say at the interval and his side came out for the second half positively, keeping the ball better in the early exchanges before creating their first chance after the restart in the 48th minute when Ranegie flicked on a ball forward and the ball broke for Deeney to try a half-volley from 25 yards which Grant held.
Ekstrand had not been enjoying one of his better afternoons but it was take a bad turn for the worse when he went down in agony clutching his right knee. The defender’s game was clearly over and he had to be carried from the pitch before being replaced by Tommie Hoban in the 53rd minute.
Derby had not got started at all in the second half and they could have been in trouble when a fine ball from Tozser put Pudil in the clear down the left and his centre was cut out by a defender under pressure from Deeney, although referee Scott Duncan deemed the Hornets striker had committed a foul.
But the visitors’ injury problems continued to mount as McGugan was forced out of the contest with what looked to be an ankle problem in the 57th minute and was replaced by Anya.
The Rams then began to find their attacking feet as Bryson shot wide from the edge of the area before a Hornets old boy fired the home side in front in superb fashion on the hour-mark.
Watford were unable to clear their lines as the ball was worked into the area and when it fell for Forsyth on the edge of the 18-yard box, he crashed a superb first-time left-footed finish into the roof of the net to make it 2-1.
The hosts then went for the jugular but Watford somehow survived as Bond denied Martin when he was through one-on-one before Russell put the follow up wide. Hendrick had a shot deflected behind and Ward then put another great opening across the face of goal and wide.
The odds were already against the visitors and they stacked up even higher in the 68th minute when Bryson was caught late by Cassetti as he played in Martin, who shot wide. Referee Duncan didn’t miss the Italian’s transgression though, and a yellow card was swiftly followed by a red as the Hornets were reduced to ten men.
Watford’s response? Within two minutes they were level.
Anya made the most of a lapse in the Derby ball to pick up the ball on the right side of the area before standing up a delightful cross to the back post where Ranegie was presented with a straightforward header down and past Grant to make it 2-2.
But for a superb save from Bond though, the Rams would have been back in front soon after as Ward made the most of a mistake from Riera and unleashed a right-footed snap-shot but the Hornets keeper showed superb reactions to block it away.
A raft of substitutions followed in the 74th minute as Simon Dawkins and Patrick Bamford came on for Ward and Russell, while Ranegie made way for Davide Faraoni.
Dawkins had a powerful shot blocked moments after entering the fray before dragging another effort from distance wide. But Derby were to make their numerical advantage count in the 82nd minute, although it took a goal of real quality to do it.
The ball was played in from the left to Hendrick around 30 yards out and he let rip with a right-footed piledriver that left Bond grasping at thin air as the ball flew past his dive and ripped into the back of the net to make it 3-2.
Watford still refused to lie down though, and Deeney almost surprised Grant with what appeared to be a mis-hit right-footed cross that went narrowly over.
But the Hornets’ fate was to be sealed in the 86th minute when Derby worked the ball from right to left inside the area and Martin got away from Hoban to steer the ball wide of Bond and into the far corner of the net to make it 4-2.
Martin immediately made way for Will Hughes before the Hornets had another opportunity when, following a deep corner from the right, Faraoni managed to get in a far-post header which Grant had to parry away.
Bryson almost made it five in injury-time when he received Forsyth’s pass from the left and opened up his body to strike a right-footed curler towards the bottom corner but Bond got down well to turn it behind.
Pudil did see a run inside off the left flank end with a shot over the bar at the other end before Deeney was booked for kicking the ball away as this defeat, coupled with results elsewhere, finally ended Watford’s slim mathematical play-off chances.
Derby County: Grant; Wisdom, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth; Hendrick, Thorne, Bryson; Ward (Dawkins 74), Martin (Hughes 87), Russell (Bamford 74). Not used: Legzdins, Naylor, Eustace, Whitbread.
Watford: Bond; Doyley, Cassetti, Ekstrand (Hoban 53); Riera, McGugan (Anya 5, Tozser, Battocchio, Pudil; Ranegie (Faraoni 74), Deeney. Not used: Woods, Merkel, Murray, Jakubiak.
Bookings: Cassetti for a foul on Russell (4); Riera for a foul on Forsyth (22); Cassetti for a foul on Bryson – sent off (68); Deeney for dissent (90).
Referee: Scott Duncan.