Watford’s perfect start to the season is over but they can count themselves unfortunate not to have battled back from 2-0 down to earn a point following a 2-1 defeat against Manchester United at Vicarage Road.

Trailing at the break to goals from Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling, the Hornets looked destined for a spirited first loss of the season after Andre Gray had halved the deficit.

But after Nemanja Matic had been sent off in injury time, it took a superb save from David de Gea to prevent Christian Kabasele from heading in the resultant free-kick.

Although Ben Foster was the busier of the two goalkeepers, Watford were containing their opponents for the opening 30 minutes and giving United enough to think about. But they were to be rocked by a quick-fire double in the latter stages of the first half, conceding two goals that were both disappointing defensively.

Lukaku was grateful beneficiary of low cross from Ashley Young and within three minutes Smalling had hooked in a second after Marouane Fellaini had been allowed to peel off into space at a corner to head the ball into the six-yard box.

It could have been worse had it not been for two excellent saves from Foster denying Paul Pogba, but the Hornets have already shown they have character and togetherness aplenty this season as they set about climbing the steep hill they faced after the break.

The size of that task was halved in the 65th minute when Andre Gray side-footed into the roof of the net after Abdoulaye Doucoure had cut the ball back to him.

Despite having plenty of time to try and get back on terms and plugging away, a clear chance of equaliser wasn’t created until the death when the excellence of De Gea prevented Kabasele from heading in a last-gasp equaliser.

With no new injury concerns following the international break, Javi Gracia chose to name an unchanged starting XI for the fifth consecutive game.

United’s team news was also straightforward, with only the one change from the side that beat Burnley 2-0 last time out as Ashley Young replaced Luke Shaw following the head injury he sustained in England’s defeat to Spain.

The visitors, playing in their third kit of salmon shirts, were to have the first semblance of an opening inside two minutes when Young did well to keep the ball in play on the left and laid it inside to Alexis Sanchez and he almost released Lukaku in the area, but Foster dived at the Belgian striker’s feet to save.

Doucoure did shoot high and wide in the opening stages, but it was the visitors who had the majority of the early possession, with Watford having some success with their pressing game as they picked their moments to regain the ball.

Foster was right behind a well hit Pogba shot in the 12th minute, but soon after Will Hughes spun superbly on the edge of the United box to open up an opportunity of his own which De Gea was also equal to.

Boosted by that, the Hornets started to lift their game and a long Kabasele pass forward was headed down by Troy Deeney for Roberto Pereyra. It initially looked like the chance might be lost when the Argentine chose to lay the ball back to his skipper rather than go alone, but they were able to fashion an opportunity which saw Deeney force de Gea into an excellent tip over.

What was an increasingly fascinating contest saw Sanchez get the ball into the net in the 24th minute when he was flagged offside, but the majority of United’s attacking advances were coming down Watford’s right with Young proving a more than useful outlet for the visitors.

The Hornets were then to have the better of it for a spell, mixing good possession with attacking variety, only for the visitors to have the next opening when Jesse Lingard backed his pace and control against the home side’s backline and forced Foster to tip over with a rising drive from the right side of the box.

Etienne Capoue was the first player to be booked in the 34th minute when he illegally stopped Lingard from breaking as United threatened to counter, but soon after the visitors were to make the breakthrough with a poor goal from the hosts’ perspective.

Watford failed to deal with a low Fellaini cross from the right which was played back out to Young on the left, he delivered a low ball back into the danger zone which Foster was unable to cut out and Lukaku was presented with the easiest of tap-ins to make it 1-0.

United immediately smelt blood, with Pogba forcing Foster into a superb save with a rasping drive from the edge of the area. The French World Cup winner than saw a right-footed volley deflected over from the resulting corner, but from the next set piece the Hornets were not to escape further punishment.

A deep delivery from the right was headed back into the danger zone by Fellaini, who had pulled off into space at the back post, and Smalling had the time in the six-yard box to chest the ball down before hooking it past Foster to make it 2-0.

It almost got worse for the Hornets in first-half injury-time when a deep Lingard cross from the right picked out an unmarked Pobga at the far post, but his first-time volley was kept out by the outstretched frame of Foster.

The opening stages of the second half were relatively even; Watford looking for a route back into the game while their opponents were content to sit on their lead but trying to attack when possible.

The Hornets did have an opportunity to test De Gea when Pereyra was fouled 25 yards to the left of centre, but the midfielder was unable to keep his resultant set-piece down.

The home side had a sniff of another chance when Jose Holebas whipped a corner into the near post, but the under-pressure Smalling did well to head over as Kabasele came in looking for the flick.

Gracia’s men remained patient though, and that approach was to be rewarded in the 65th minute when Pereyra managed to get the ball through to Doucoure on the left side of the area and he cut the ball back for Gray to side-foot into the roof of the net from 12 yards.

Both sides made a change in the 71st minute, with Anthony Martial replacing Lingard while Daryl Janmaat made way for Kiko Femenia.

Another opening presented itself for the home side soon after when Pereyra broke down the left and laid the ball back for Doucoure, who had time and space to weigh up a shot from 20 yards. But the Frenchman was never properly set and sliced his effort high and wide of the target.

With time starting to run out though, the Hornets had to take an increasing number of risks which left them susceptible to the counter.

They were almost undone with 12 minutes remaining when Antonio Valencia was sent racing clear down the right, his cross was laid off by Lukaku into the path of Sanchez, but Craig Cathcart produced a superb goal-saving challenge and got Foster’s knee in his stomach for his troubles.

Both sides made their second change with seven minutes remaining when Scott McTominay replaced Sanchez, while Adam Masina came on for his Premier League debut in place of Holebas. Soon after Cathcart made way for Isaac Success.

The Hornets kept plugging away with Doucoure testing De Gea with a well-struck drive shortly before the referee signalled for a minimum of three minutes of additional time.

But the drama was still to come as Matic was sent off after receiving his second yellow card for a foul on Hughes. Foster gave United something else to think about as he ventured upfield for the free-kick and when Masina whipped the ball in, Kabasele met with a strong header only to watch De Gea spring to his left and superbly prevent the equaliser.

Masina took the resultant corner from the left and his delivery went right across the six-yard box and not too far wide of the far post as a superbly spirited effort by the Hornets fell just short of being rewarded with a battling point.

Watford: Foster; Janmaat (Femenia 71), Kabasele, Cathcart (Success 88), Holebas (Masina 83); Hughes, Doucoure, Capoue, Pereyra; Gray, Deeney. Subs not used: Gomes, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia (Bailly 90), Smalling, Lindelof, Young; Pogba, Fellaini, Matic; Lingard (Martial 71), Lukaku, Sanchez (McTominay 83). Subs not used: Grant, Mata, Fred, Darmian.

Bookings: Capoue for a foul on Lingard (34); Holebas for dissent (35); Matic for a foul on Doucoure (70); Valencia for handball (81); Matic for a foul on Hughes – sent off (90).

Referee: Mike Dean.