There was no evidence of the issues that dogged Watford’s build-up to the game as the Hornets rose to second in the fledgling Championship table after thumping nine-man Leeds United 4-1 at Vicarage Road.
Head coach Beppe Sannino had come into the game with big questions over his future at Vicarage Road but he demonstrated his authority by dropping Lloyd Dyer following his controversial goal celebration at Rotherham United.
There were no such public shows of displeasure this afternoon as Watford took advantage of their opponents being reduced to ten men in the second half, with the excellent Fernando Forestieri leading the way.
The Hornets had taken the lead in the 21st minute when Forestieri headed in the rebound after his initial effort had been saved after the striker had worked hard to create an opening following an over-struck corner.
But Leeds, who did not have an effort on-target in the first half, were able to get back on terms before the break when Gabriel Tamas sliced a Billy Sharp cross into his own net.
However, the game swung in Watford’s favour 11 minutes after the restart when Giuseppe Bellusci was sent off for bringing down Forestieri in the penalty area and Troy Deeney made no mistake from 12 yards.
The game was effectively ended as a contest in the 66th minute when Forestieri scored a superb third, jinking his way across the penalty area and avoiding several attempted challenges on the way before finding the bottom corner to net his second.
That looked to be the end of the scoring until injury-time when Daniel Tozser fired home his first Hornets goal from a 30-yard free-kick before Leeds’ afternoon got even worse when Sam Byram was shown a straight red card for an apparent elbow on Daniel Pudil.
Sannino made four changes to the starting XI which beat United on Tuesday night but it was who the head coach left out that provided the big talking points.
Dyer was omitted completely following his very public outburst after scoring the Hornets’ opener in Yorkshire and, for the second game running, Lewis McGugan was not involved in the match-day 18.
The changes that were made saw Pudil, Almen Abdi and Tozer return while Forestieri was preferred to Matej Vydra, who was on the bench after sustaining a dead leg in the 2-0 win. Keith Andrews, Ikechi Anya and Diego Fabbrini also dropped down to among the substitutes as Sannino reverted back to a more recognised 3-5-2 formation.
Former Hornets coach Dave Hockaday made two changes to the team that were beaten 2-0 at home by Brighton & Hove Albion last time out, giving debuts to new Italian signings Bellusci and Mirco Antenucci. Matt Smith and Liam Cooper made way and were on the bench.
Watford created a couple of promising opportunities in the opening minutes. First, an Abdi corner from the right was punched off the head of Gabriele Angella by Marco Silvestri, before the Italian keeper got to a Deeney through ball as Forestieri sought to get on the end of it on the edge of the six-yard box. Forestieri also had a shot blocked soon after following some encouraging build-up play down the Watford left.
There was further cause for optimism in the 13th minute when Forestieri worked back to the centre circle to help win back possession as Antenucci tried to create an attacking opportunity, Tozser struck a 30-yard pass up to Deeney on the edge of the penalty area and the striker brought the ball down before trying to tee up Abdi but he was hustled out of getting a strike on goal.
Rodolph Austin had Leeds’ first effort soon after but he dragged a 20-yard shot wide, but in the 21st minute Watford made the breakthrough.
A Tozer corner from the right initially appeared to be over-hit but Forestieri chased after what could have been a lost cause close to the left touchline before stepping away from a challenge and rolling the ball inside to Deeney. He back-heeled it into the area, Gianni Munari helped it on and Forestieri saw his initial right-footed shot saved by Silvestri but kept his eye on the ball to nod the rebound home and make it 1-0.
The right side of the Leeds defence was proving a useful attacking channel for the Hornets and in the 30th minute, after another build-up down that side of the pitch, Forestieri came inside before chancing his arm with a right-footed shot from 25 yards but Silvestri was comfortably behind it.
Leeds were back on terms two minutes later though, in fortuitous circumstances.
There shouldn’t have been too much danger when Sharp played in a low cross from the right but the ball sliced off the outstretched leg of Tamas and there was nothing Hurelho Gomes could do about it.
Having been pegged back, Watford spurned a great opportunity to retake the lead in the 36th minute when Abdi’s corner from the right picked out a totally unmarked Tommie Hoban, but the defender was unable to get over his header and put a clear opening over the top from no more than five yards out.
The Hornets had another opening when Pudil capitalised on a lapse from Byram to open up a counter-attacking opportunity. But instead of trying to work the ball inside to the supporting Abdi and Forestieri, he carried on alone and his angled shot was dealt with by Silvestri.
Tozser became the first player to be booked in the 42nd minute for a foul on Sharp, before a superb pass from Forestieri almost succeeded in putting Munari in on goal as the two sides went into half-time all-square.
Forestieri, who had been the pick of the Watford players in the opening period, had another effort 35 seconds after the restart, curling a right-footed shot narrowly wide from the edge of the area after a Juan Carlos Paredes cross had been nodded down by Deeney.
But Leeds went close to a second soon after as Jason Pearce headed a free-kick narrowly over after Gabriele Angella had been booked for a foul on Luke Murphy.
The Hornets were presented with a free-kick in a great position in the 54th minute when Deeney was taken out by Stephen Warnock on the edge of the 18-yard box centrally. But Tozser got his set piece all wrong and it flew harmlessly into the Rookery.
Sannino made his first change moments later, bringing on Anya for Paredes, before the complexion of the game changed entirely in the 56th minute.
A mix-up in the Leeds defence allowed Forestieri the chance to latch onto the ball on the left side of the penalty area, only for him to be taken down from behind Bellusci. Referee James Linington had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot, the inevitable red card for the Leeds defender quickly followed, and Deeney did what was required from 12 yards to score his 11th goal in his last 11 appearances at Vicarage Road and make it 2-1.
There was no surprise that Hockaday decided to make a change but it brought howls of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ from the visiting faithful when Sharp was replaced by Cooper in the 62nd minute.
Leeds were up against it and there task was made even harder four minutes later when the excellent Forestieri scored a memorable third.
Munari got things rolling with a driving run from central midfield and the striker picked up the ball on the left edge of the area and jinked across the area, evading several challenges, before hitting a shot back in the direction he came and watched as it cannoned into the net off the far post.
Forestieri’s fine afternoon’s work was ended in the 75th minute when he made way for Odion Ighalo, but not before he had come close to completing his hat-trick by hitting a left-footed shot narrowly wide from 18 yards. Leeds made their second change at the same time with Dominic Poleon replacing Michael Tonge.
Munari went close to getting on the scoresheet as he headed narrowly over before both teams played their final hand; Smith replacing Antenucci while Andrews came on for Abdi.
That looked like it would be that – apart from Leeds picking up a couple of late yellow cards – until the game entered injury time when the Hornets were awarded a free-kick 30 yards out and Tozser took aim before firing a daisy-cutter into the far corner.
Leeds' misery was further compounded when Byram left Pudil on the floor after an apparent elbow and after consulting with his linesman, Linington showed his second red card of the afternoon.
Watford: Gomes; Hoban, Tamas, Angella; Paredes (Anya 55), Munari, Tozser, Abdi (Andrews 81), Pudil; Deeney, Forestieri (Ighalo 75). Not used: Bond, Doyley, Fabbrini, Vydra.
Leeds United: Silverstri; Byram, Bellusci, Pearce, Warnock; Austin; Tonge (Poleon 75), Murphy, Bianchi; Antenucci (Smith 81), Sharp (Cooper 62). Not used: S Taylor, Wootton, Cook, Norris.
Bookings: Tozser for a foul on Sharp (42); Angella for a foul on Murphy (47); Bellusci sent off for a foul on Forestieri – denying a clear goalscoring opportunity (56); Byram for a foul on Pudil (85); Austin for a foul on Tozser (90); Byram sent off for violent conduct (90).
Attendance: 15,674 (1,975 away).
Referee: James Linington.