Watford showed why 2013 is a year to look forward to with growing optimism after a devastating three-minute second-half spell saw them win away again by inflicting a 3-1 defeat on Brighton & Hove Albion in front of the live TV cameras.
Troy Deeney fired the Hornets into the lead nine minutes after the restart but the Seagulls were back on terms ten minutes later when David Lopez equalised with a spot-kick after Tommie Hoban had conceded a penalty.
That setback might have knocked some teams out of their stride, particularly away from home, but not the Hornets – and especially Matej Vydra.
The on-song striker put his side back in front with a deflected shot before, within, three minutes scorching clear from halfway to dispatch what is fast becoming a trademark one-versus-one finish.
Neither side had been able to make the breakthrough in the first half but Watford had the better of the chances. Daniel Pudil should have hit the target with a free header early on and at the end of the half only an excellent save from former Hornet Tomasz Kuszczak prevented Vydra from opening the scoring.
Gianfranco Zola named the same side that was due to start against Bristol City on Boxing Day before the torrential rain decided otherwise, meaning Ikechi Anya replaced the suspended Marco Cassetti. Fernando Forestieri was fit to take his place among the substitutes and Jonathan Bond also returned.
Like their opponents, Brighton’s last scheduled game was postponed – a trip to Blackburn Rovers – but Gus Poyet made three changes to the side that was last in action when they drew 2-2 at home to Millwall.
The big news from the Hornets’ perspective was that former winger Will Buckley was ruled out through injury, while Lewis Dunk and Dean Hammond dropped to the bench. Their places were taken by Bruno Saltor and Andrea Orlandi, who were both back from injury, and Kazenga LuaLua was promoted from among the substitutes. Former Vicarage Road loanees Kusczak and Liam Bridcutt both started, alongside Watford-born Craig Mackail-Smith, and Will Hoskins was on the bench.
Both sides began with some good spells of possession on a pitch slickened up by a pre-match downpour but it was the hosts who had the first strike on goal in the sixth minute when Orlandi tested Manuel Almunia with a left-footed shot from 20 yards.
Within a minute though, the Hornets had spurned a fine chance to take the lead when an Almen Abdi corner from the right presented Pudil with a free header but he missed the target.
The quality of the opportunity wasn’t quite as good a couple of minutes later, but Andrew Crofts should have at least hit the target when he was picked out on the edge of the area by LuaLua’s pull back from the left, but he lifted his right-footed shot over the bar.
The game then went into a slight lull after an entertaining opening but Almunia had to be alert in the 18th minute to deal with a stinging right-footed drive from LuaLua from just outside the area.
The hosts were then awarded the first free-kick of the evening which Orlandi curled left-footed wide of Almunia’s right-hand post from 25 yards, with the Hornets keeper keeping a watchful eye on the ball as it went behind.
Adam El-Abd could have no complaints at picking up the game’s first yellow card in the 23rd minute after ending a surging run from Vydra by pulling his shirt. This gave Abdi a good free-kick opportunity on the edge of the area but his set piece struck the wall.
Soon after, Kuszczak saved a low side-footed shot from Jonathan Hogg after he had been fed by Nathaniel Chalobah, who thought he had been fouled in the area, and then the Seagulls stopper wasn’t overly troubled by a Deeney header from an Anya cross from the right.
The card count was levelled up in the 29th minute when Anya was cautioned following a foul on LuaLua but the Hornets enjoyed a good spell a few minutes later, winning three corners in succession, the third of which led to Abdi trying to catch Kuszczak out at his near post but the Pole saved easily enough.
The Brighton keeper was also not unduly extended either by an Abdi free-kick in the 38th minute after Chalobah had been fouled outside the area before a wild Vydra shot ended up going out for a throw after Anya had threatened down the right.
The Hornets suffered a blow though, three minutes before the break when Fitz Hall, who had been in commanding form at the heart of the defence, suffered what appeared to be a hamstring injury and was replaced by Neuton.
The visitors then needed Pudil to make a vital clearance at the back post as Lopez was lurking to convert a low centre from the left, but it was Watford who had two excellent opportunities to take lead in first-half injury-time.
First Kuszczak made a fine diving save to his left to keep out a firmly struck left-footed shot from Vydra after he had been set free in the area by a lovely Chalobah back heel and then Deeney failed to make sufficient contact on a fine headed chance following Abdi’s ball in from the right.
The second period started with Brighton having most of the possession but with their first attack after the restart Watford took the lead in the 54th minute.
The move originated from a free-kick in their own half which was received by Pudil, who attacked as Vydra steamed past him to add further attacking impetus. This also took a defender away as the ball was slipped to Deeney, who took one touch before striking a right-footed shot past Kuszczak to join Vydra on ten goals for the campaign.
The Seagulls had an opportunity to equalise almost immediately when a free-kick found the largely unmarked El-Abd, but his header was straight at Almunia.
Poyet decided to make his first change in the 59th minute, bringing on Ashley Barnes for Orlandi, but within five minutes Brighton were level – and it was a goal virtually all of the visitors’ making.
Almunia came to gather a ball and seemed to have it within his grasp, only for it to squirm free, and then Hoban bundled into LuaLua, who didn’t need a second invitation to go down, but referee Oliver Langford duly pointed to the spot and Lopez hit the ball high to the keeper’s right to make it 1-1.
Having been pegged back though, what followed was quite superb as Watford took a stranglehold on the game within the space of five minutes.
The first had an element of good fortune as Vydra hit a right-footed shot that caught a Brighton player’s leg and sent it looping over Kuszczak to make it 2-1 in the 67th minute. However, the home side's defenders were also at fault as they backed off, inviting the Czech striker to chance his arm from outside the area
But there was nothing lucky about the Hornets’ third as Vydra showed stunning acceleration to race on to a perfectly-weighted Deeney pass from halfway and then showed the superb composure that is now almost expected in one-on-one situations as he steered the ball wide of Kuszczak to give his side a two-goal cushion.
Both sided then made changes, with Geoffrey Mujangi Bia replacing Anya and Poyet bringing on Hoskins and Stephen Dobbie for Crofts and Orlandi.
Cristian Battocchio also came on for Abdi with ten minutes remaining before Almunia was called on to make a good save to keep out as Bruno strike from close range.
Apart from a late yellow card for Bia though, Watford safely saw out the remainder of the game to pick up another three points on their travels, making it five unbeaten on the road and picking up 11 points and scoring 16 goals in the process.
Brighton & Hove Albion: Kuszczak; Bruno, Greer, El-Abd, Bridge; Bridcutt; Crofts (Hoskins 73), Orlandi (Barnes 59); Lopez (Dobbie 73), Mackail-Smith, LuaLua. Not used: Brezovan, Hammond, Dunk and Dicker.
Watford: Almunia; Hoban, Hall (Neuton 42), Ekstrand; Anya (Bia 73), Abdi (Battocchio 80), Chalobah, Hogg, Pudil; Deeney, Vydra. Not used: Yeates, Bond, Geijo and Forestieri.
Bookings: El-Abd for a foul on Vydra (23); Abdi for a foul on LuaLua (29); Bia for a foul on LuaLua (89).
Referee: Oliver Langford.