Watford’s defensive frailties were again exposed as they twice let a lead slip to allow Bristol City to earn a 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road and extend the home side’s sequence of league games without a win to four.
After having numerous attempts, but hardly any that could be called clear-cut during a first half they controlled for the most part, the reintroduction of Troy Deeney following his release from prison gave the Hornets more of an edge in attack.
Four minutes after coming on, the striker was in the right place to pounce had James Wilson not turned Marco Cassetti’s low cross into his own net.
However, some slack play at the back allowed to Marvin Elliott to equalise for a first time before the Hornets went back in front when Matej Vydra capitalised on his excellent control to net his fourth of the campaign.
But the Hornets, who had 28 attempts in the match and struck the woodwork twice through Almen Abdi and Deeney, were caught out at the back again with seven minutes remaining when Steven Davies levelled for a second time.
Gianfranco Zola once again shuffled his pack as the Hornets sought to end their run of three defeats, although one change was enforced with Jonathan Hogg ruled out through illness.
This meant on-loan Chelsea youngster Nathaniel Chalobah was given a first start after his impressive mid-week debut substitute appearance against Brighton & Hove Albion, while the fit-again Sean Murray was given the nod over Chris Iwelumo in the three-man attack.
However, arguably the greatest interest was on the bench. Fitz Hall was involved in a match-day 18 for the first time since his summer move and Deeney was also among the substitutes.
Iwelumo’s omission meant Manuel Almunia took over the captain’s armband, meaning he became the fourth player to lead the Hornets in just nine games this season.
The Hornets started promisingly, with Murray and Fernando Forestieri showing early attacking intent. Forestieri had the first attempt in the sixth minute, which was blocked, and then Murray lifted the ball into Vydra, who was in the clear in the penalty area but unable to bring it under control.
City’s first effort came in the 12th minute when Almunia wasn’t able to get to Albert Adomah’s free-kick from wide on the right but Marvin Elliott couldn’t direct his header on target.
The next opening came four minutes later when Chalobah had two bites of the cherry from the edge of the area, forcing Tom Heaton into his opening save of the match with a right-footed drive after his initial effort from slightly further out had been blocked.
Wilson could have few complaints at picking up the game’s first booking in the 19th minute after scything down Vydra as the Hornets striker sought to capitalise on a mix up between the centre half and the keeper near the edge of the 18-yard box. The resultant free-kick was taken by Almen Abdi and the midfielder curled it narrowly wide of the near post.
Forestieri took over set-piece duties when his side were awarded another free-kick soon after but Heaton was comfortably behind the right-footed 25-yard effort.
The Robins keeper was also not unduly tested by a Mark Yeates effort from distance, nor was he ultimately by Chalobah’s close-range effort in the 25th minute. However, the hand-in-hands reaction of the Chelsea youngster told you what a good opportunity it was when he could only prod the ball goalwards after a fortuitous break had fallen nicely for him in the area following an initial surging run.
Despite being out-gunned in terms of possession and territory, City had threatened on occasions and Neuton had to get in a timely block to deflect a Sam Baldock half-volley behind for the visitors’ first corner.
That came to nothing and Watford were soon back on the front foot, with Vydra doing well on the left side of the area to set up Murray but Heaton dived to his left to save the side-footed effort.
The new Republic of Ireland Under-21 international chanced his arm again in the 32nd minute, this time from further out, but the right-footed strike was straight out the former Cardiff City stopper.
Almunia’s afternoon had been relatively quiet compared to his opposite number at this stage but that changed three minutes later when he made a good blocking save to deny Martyn Woolford, who hadn’t been picked up on the edge of the 18-yard box when the ball was played in from the City right.
Forestieri had the Hornets’ seventh on-target attempt of the half in the 37th minute but, as with most of the others, it was from longish range and Heaton wasn’t unduly extended.
Number eight quickly followed from Murray after being found by a lovely cross-field pass from Forestieri, but this time the shot was deflected wide of the near post for a corner. Following that set-piece, the ball broke for Neuton in the area but his close-range on-target effort was blocked.
Vydra did have the ball in the net in the 39th minute, prodding left-footed past Heaton after being found in plenty of space in the area, only to be flagged offside.
Eliott picked up City’s second yellow card three minutes later for a foul on Forestieri but the goal that Watford had been threatening almost arrived in injury time when Abdi’s strike from the edge of the area cannoned back off the near post.
There was still time for the hosts to have their 15th attempt of the opening period but this time Forestieri was wayward from distance.
Watford started the second half as they ended the first, controlling possession, but they had a lucky escape three minutes after the restart when Daniel Pudil made a good tackle to halt Adomah’s run at the defence but the ball ran to Woolford on the left side of the area and his strike from a tight angle rebounded out off the near post.
Forestieri had his sixth effort of the match soon after but as with the majority that preceeded it, the shot was off target.
It was a combination though, of excellent defending and bad luck that stopped Watford from taking the lead in the 54th minute when, following a Forestieri corner that was played low into the box, Nyron Nosworthy’s far-post effort was somehow blocked on the line and then Cassetti saw his close-range follow-up deflected narrowly wide.
Zola chose that break in play as the opportunity to reintroduce Deeney into football, with Forestieri, and the substitute’s impact was almost instant.
The striker’s first involvement saw him receive the ball with his back to goal but come back inside from the left side of the area before hitting a stinging right-footed drive that Heaton could only parry back out to Vydra, who struck the follow-up badly wide of the near post.
Deeney sent another shot wide soon after before Watford finally got the goal they deserved in the 58th minute.
Cassetti was the creator with a dangerous low cross from the right that Wilson, with Deeney ready to pounce behind him, could only turn into his net to make it 1-0.
The lead though, was to last only five minutes as, after Neil Kilkenny had come on for Woolford, the ball was played into the area from the left and Elliott was left with a free header to make it 1-1.
Boosted by the equaliser, City spurned a fine spell of possession in and around the opposition box that lasted for a around a minute but it came to an end when Adomah hit the side netting after Ryan Taylor had seen an earlier effort blocked.
Hall became Watford’s latest debutant in the 70th minute when he replaced Neuton and two minutes later the hosts went back in front in exquisite fashion thanks to their Czech connection.
Pudil was the supplier with a lofted pass in from the left that picked out Vydra, who brought the ball down superbly, took one touch inside before calmly passing the ball past Heaton to restore the Hornets’ advantage.
Cassetti’s afternoon came to an end when he was replaced by Lloyd Doyley, while scorer Elliott also made way for Davies, and it was the substitute who scored City’s second equaliser with seven minutes to go when he was left unmarked to convert Taylor’s knock down with ease.
But Watford so nearly snatched a third with two minutes remaining when, after the ball had been kept alive following a corner, a cross from the right was headed across goal and down against the far post by Deeney, but it bounced up to Hall, who saw his follow-up header acrobatically tipped over by Heaton.
Having almost won it though, the Hornets could equally have lost the game in the second minute of injury time when Yeates was caught horribly in possession and a clear chance opened up for Kilkenny, only for him to blaze high and wide.
Watford: Almunia; Cassetti (Doyley 76), Nosworthy, Neuton (Hall 70), Pudil; Abdi, Chalobah, Yeates; Murray, Vydra, Forestieri (Deeney 55). Not used: Iwelumo, Beleck, Smith and Bond.
Bristol City: Heaton; Foster, Wilson, Fontaine, Bryan; Adomah, Elliott (Davies 77), Pearson, Woolford (Kilkenny 58); Taylor, Baldock (Morris 85). Not used: Wilson, Carey, Stead and Gerken.
Bookings: Wilson for a foul on Vydra (19); Elliott for a foul on Forestieri (42).
Referee: Darren Sheldrake.