Watford went close to snatching a win at the very death but they had to settle for a point following a 1-1 draw with West Ham United at Vicarage Road.

The Hornets had earlier got off to the perfect start when a Troy Deeney penalty gave them a very early lead after Mauro Zarate was fouled by Cheikhou Kouyate.

It looked the home side would build on that lead for a spell as they played with confidence, but the game then levelled out before West Ham started to gain the upper hand as the opening period ticked past the half-an-hour mark.

But Watford were to suffer a bad setback shortly before the interval when Zarate had to be stretchered off with a very serious-looking knee injury.

The hosts increasingly struggled for midfield control after the break as their opponents took a further grip on the game. Michail Antonio missed a great chance to equalise but it was his strike that hit both posts that led to the visitors getting back on terms as the rebound fell invitingly for substitute Andre Ayew to convert.

Antonio was not to finish the match; sent off with five minutes remaining for a second yellow card offence and the Hornets came so close to snatching the points deep into injury time when the bravery of Darren Randolph prevented substitute Isaac Success from turning in Deeney’s header towards the far post after a corner had not been cleared. By the same token though, only a fine defensive header from Jose Holebas had prevented the visitors from scoring a second moments earlier.

Walter Mazzarri made two changes from the side that lost at Manchester United last time out as Sebastian Prodl and Craig Cathcart dropped to the bench, having been doubts in the build-up to the game. Their places were taken by Daryl Janmaat and Valon Behrami, who had also been an injury concern beforehand.

Slaven Bilic opted to keep faith with the same XI that drew 2-2 against West Bromwich Albion a fortnight ago and there was no place in the match-day 18 for Andy Carroll, who was still not fit enough to be involved.

And it was the visitors who found themselves behind inside three minutes due to, at best, unfortunate circumstances and, at worst, a clumsy incident.

The Hammers found themselves in trouble from Tom Cleverley’s intelligent lofted pass which set Deeney away on the left. He then slipped the ball into the penalty area where former Iron Zarate was bundled over by Kouyate.

The sympathetic view would be that the West Ham right-back slipped but, whatever caused him to bring down Zarate, referee Craig Pawson was correct to award the penalty which Deeney confidently tucked inside Randolph’s right-hand post to make it 1-0.

Boosted by the early breakthrough, Watford weren’t too far away from making it 2-0 soon after when Zarate dispossessed Pedro Obiang in midfield and M’Baye Niang ventured forward before hitting a right-footed piledriver from 20 yards out which wasn’t too far over.

West Ham were second best in the opening ten minutes but they did stretch the home side’s defence when Antonio got away down the left and fizzed in a low cross which a stretching Miguel Britos sliced away to safety.

Bilic’s men were soon back defending though, as Holebas saw a shot deflected behind for a corner and, moments later, Etienne Capoue dragged a shot wide after a lovely flick from Zarate, who had started the game well like most of his teammates.

But Watford were stretched in the 18th minute when the ball was worked to Soafiane Feghouli, who pulled it back to Robert Snodgrass in space, only for his shot to be well blocked by Younes Kaboul.

It was then Holebas’ turn to prevent the January signing from Hull City from getting his head on the end of an Aaron Cresswell cross as the visitors continued to have a reasonable spell.

The Hornets weren’t able to muster the same attacking threat as earlier in the game during this period, but there was still a promising purposeful intent about their play when they were able to get the ball forward.

The referee had to get his yellow card out for the first time in 36th minute when Janmaat scythed down Antonio outside the left side of the 18-yard box. But Manuel Lanzini wasted a promising position by going for goal himself and curling his shot over.

The Hammers continued to press as the first half came to a close with Cresswell the next to try his luck from distance, but his ambitious left-footed strike comfortably cleared the target.

However, the Hornets had a good situation two minutes before the break when Cleverley set Holebas racing away down the left. But with Deeney and Niang looking to make their moves inside the area, the former Greek international waited a fraction too long, enabling Kouyate to make the challenge.

The hosts were soon to be exposed again when Cresswell got in around the back and his low cross was palmed away in the penalty area by Heurelho Gomes, with Holebas getting to the loose ball first to clear.

During that incident though, Zarate had gone to ground near the edge of the penalty area and it was quickly evident that not being able to complete the game was likely to the least of his concerns.

Replays showed the forward had got his boot caught in the turf as he turned, opening up his knee joint and he required more than five minutes of treatment before he was stretchered off wearing an oxygen mask.

Abdoulaye Doucoure took his place but there was still time for the card count to be levelled up when Antonio saw yellow for a late and high challenge on Behrami.

Watford began the second half with Niang taking up what had been Zarate’s position on the left of an attacking three, with Doucoure operating on the other side of Deeney.

Both sides looked to be positive after the restart but the game lacked pattern, although there was a significant talking point when Pawson adjudged Kouyate was holding back Niang in the area as both challenged for the ball and not the other way round.

Watford suffered another injury blow six minutes into the second half when Janmaat had to go off with a problem and was replaced by Cathcart.

But the home side almost carved out an opening when Kaboul went long to Deeney, he won the knock down to Capoue, who lifted the ball back into his skipper. He again won the header but the ball wouldn’t hold up for the supporting Cleverley in the area as Randolph came out to claim.

The majority of the play was towards the Hornets goal though, and in the 59th minute Lanzini showed some superb footwork as he broke through the defence before cutting the ball back and Britos, after presumably getting a shout, let it run for Gomes, who just managed to get a telling touch.

The hosts then needed their goalkeeper to be at his best, making a superb finger-tip stage to push away a Jose Fonte header after a Snodgrass free-kick from the right had been nodded back into the danger zone.

After Kouyate had been cautioned for a foul on Niang, West Ham made their first change as Snodgrass was replaced by Ayew.

Niang was also yellow carded soon after, but the Hammers really should have equalised in the 68th minute when Cresswell played in a dangerous delivery from the left and the ball sat up invitingly for Antonio but he nodded inches wide of the far post from inside the six-yard box.

Bhe goal the Hammers had been threatened and, in truth, deserved was to arrive with just over 15 minutes remaining.

Watford found themselves stretched once too often as the ball was played to Antonio, who beat Kaboul in a foot race before hitting an angled left-footed shot which hit the near post, ran across the line and cannoned back out off the far upright and fell invitingly for Ayew to finish into an empty net.

Doucoure became the third Watford player to be booked before Mazzarri made his final change, bringing on Success for Niang.

Holebas received yellow card number 12 of his season for a foul on Noble with seven minutes remaining. But there was to be a more significant disciplinary twist soon after when Antonio was penalised for deliberate handball and was shown a second yellow card.

The Hornets sensed their opportunity and had a good chance when Britos got up superbly to meet a corner from the left, only to head it back across goal and wide of the far post.

But it then needed an excellent defensive far post header from Holebas to prevent the Hammers from taking a probable lead as he prevented Feghouli from connecting with the latest fine delivery from the left boot of Cresswell.

The last change was to fall to the Hornets deep into injury time when the bravery of Randolph prevented Success from turning in a deft Deeney header towards the far post after West Ham had been unable to clear their lines from a Cleverley corner.

Despite leading for the majority of the game, Watford couldn’t have any complaints at the outcome on the balance of play as they moved another point closer to making sure of their Premier League status for another season.

Watford: Gomes; Janmaat (Cathcart 53), Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Capoue, Behrami, Cleverley; Niang (Success 82), Deeney, Zarate (Doucoure 45). Not used: Arlauskis, Prodl, Zuniga, Okaka.

West Ham United: Randolph; Kouyate, Fonte, Reid, Cresswell; Noble, Obiang; Feghouli, Snodgrass (Ayew 65), Lanzini (Fernandes 90); Antonio. Not used: Adrian, Collins, Byram, Masuaku, Calleri.

Bookings: Janmaat for a foul on Antonio (36); Antonio for a foul on Behrami (45); Kouyate for a foul on Niang (65); Niang for a foul on Lanzini (68); Doucoure for a foul on Lanzini (79); Holebas for a foul on Noble (83); Antonio for handball – sent off (85).

Attendance: 20,702.

Referee: Craig Pawson.