A spirited effort unrewarded but Manchester City’s trip to Vicarage Road was not as straightforward as previous visits as the champions were given an uncomfortable ending before securing a 2-1 victory at Watford.

Goals from Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahez looked to have set the Premier League leaders on course for their latest victory in their pursuit of a successful title defence as they rarely needed to get into top gear. But the Hornets stayed in the game and threatened to stage a dramatic comeback when Abdoulaye Doucoure pulled one back. But the visitors were able to hold on as they moved five points clear at the top, for 24 hours at least.

Set up in a 4-3-2-1 formation, Watford were organised and generally defended well in the first half as City predictably dominated possession.

Ben Foster was called upon to make three top-drawer saves, but it looked the hosts might get through to half-time all-square – indeed, they had a very good chance to take the lead but Troy Deeney was denied by Ederson.

However, the hosts often didn’t help their cause with disappointing decision making and wastefulness in possession, which only served to put them straight back on the defensive. And it was from such a spell of pressure from the visitors that Sane was able to break the deadlock five minutes before the interval.

The Hornets were still in the contest at that point, but six minutes after the break – and with the injured Will Hughes waiting to be replaced – they paid the price for a lapse in concentration as Riyad Mahrez doubled the lead.

Gabriel Jesus and Mahrez could have killed the game with a third, but the value of remaining in the contest was shown with five minutes remaining when Doucoure bundled in his first of the season from a Gerard Deulofeu cross.

The Hornets sensed their chance but despite increasing the pressure in the closing stages, with man-of-the-match Foster pushing himself up front, they were unable to create another clear opening.

Javi Gracia made three changes from the side that lost 2-0 at Leicester City, one of which was enforced after the unsuccessful appeal – at least for the time being – against Etienne Capoue’s late dismissal.

His place, as expected, was taken by Nathaniel Chalobah while Christian Kabasele and Troy Deeney also returned to the starting line-up in place of Adrian Mariappa and Deulofeu, who both dropped to the bench.

It was a case of rotation for Manchester City as they sought a seventh successive Premier League win. Pep Guardiola opted for a new-look back four from that which started the 3-1 win over Bournemouth, while David Silva and Mahrez also came into the starting XI as the champions made six alterations, with Raheem Sterling among those to drop to the bench.

The leaders, as expected, dominated possession from the outset, with David Silva hitting an early shot way over the target.

A first chance to counter was wasted when Chalobah gave the ball away, but in the ninth minute the Hornets advanced down the left as Roberto Pereyra combined with Deeney before the former dumped Fernandinho on his backside as he checked back on to his right foot before curling a shot wide of the far post.

That was encouraging but what Pereyra did next was the opposite, carelessly giving the ball away with a square pass in midfield that Sane seized upon, bursting forward at pace before trying to lift the ball over Foster, but the Hornets keeper did very well to claw it away with his left hand having already gone to ground.

City upped the ante with a number of deliveries from open play and set pieces into the Hornets area, but the home side managed to see off that onslaught, albeit with an element of good fortune at times.

However, the Watford defence looked like it would be breached in the 20th when Fernandinho’s side rule pass split it apart, only for Mahrez to find Foster blocking his route to goal and the Hornets keeper immediately did well again to thwart David Silva from the follow-up.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic though, and Ederson had to be watchful when Chalobah chanced his arm with a long-range half-volley after a headed clearance had dropped for him.

The Hornets had more promising moments but they continued to founder on being careless in possession on occasions or composure lacking at pivotal moments in the build-up.

Foster again had to be alive to the danger just past the half-hour mark when Gabriel Jesus got around the back of Kabasele tight to the by-line left of goal and tried to squeeze in a shot.

But Watford’s first opportunity of the night was to arrive moments later when Success stood up Fabian Delph on the left and sent over a cross which deflected up off the England man. It broke for Doucoure, who hooked the ball over his left shoulder and Deeney got goal-side of the City defence and connected with the dropping ball, sticking out his root boot to turn it on target only to be denied by a superb Ederson save with his legs.

Fernandino somehow escaped a booking after hauling down Hughes as the Hornets looked to counter again, but City were to break through five minutes before the interval.

Foster had again done well to get a part of his body in the way to prevent David Silva from turning the ball in from an inswinging Mahrez cross from the right. But City kept the ball alive, played it back to the former Leicester City wide man in an almost identical position, he played in another very good cross and this time Sane arrived at the far post to chest pass Foster from inside the six-yard box.

The visitors immediately went for the jugular with Watford playing catch up as Mahrez burst through on the left, but this time he was only able to hit the side netting with his attempted finish. Importantly though, the Hornets were able to keep the deficit to just a single goal at the interval.

The hosts suffered a setback at the start of the second half though, when Hughes picked up a leg injury and it was quickly apparent he would be unable to continue.

The midfielder went back on to the pitch as the change wasn’t ready to be made and in that time City doubled their lead as Watord paid the price for letting their concentration slip.

The visitors’ latest passing move ended with David Silva sliding in Gabriel Jesus unmarked on the left side of the penalty area and he centred for the equally unchecked Mahrez to convert a straightforward finish to make it 2-0.

Domingos Quina was introduced before play did restart to make his Premier League debut and the Hornets then tried to lift themselves before the game became rather more stretched for a spell.

Chalobah’s inconsistent night was ended in the 63rd minute when he was replaced by Deulofeu and soon after Success curled a left-footed effort well over from the edge of the area.

However, the Hornets were fortunate not to concede a third when Deulofeu slipped in the centre circle, the impressive Mahrez seized on the ball and put Gabriel Jesus in the clear, who lifted his effort over Foster but wide of the keeper’s right-hand post.

Watford did have an opportunity in the 71st minute when Jose Holebas curled in a free-kick from wide on the right and Success flicked a header goalwards but Ederson was able to claim.

City’s first change followed as David Silva made way for Ilkay Gundogan, but Watford then had another opportunity when they won the ball back in midfield and a good move ended with Doucoure trying to curl a shot around Ederson, but the Brazilian read his intentions.

Andre Gray replaced Success for the final 15 minutes but it was almost three again when more Hornets carelessness in position ended with Mahrez hitting a left-footed effort from the edge of the area, only to be thwarted by another good Foster save.

The importance of that was underlined in the 85h minute when the end of the game took on a different complexion.

This time it was City’s turn to be caught in possession as Delofeu disposed Delph and he sent in a dangerous cross from the right which Gray got a touch on, thwarting Ederson’s attempts to gather but having missed his initial header, Doucoure was able to bundle in his first goal of the season.

The volume inside Vicarage Road was instantly lifted and soon after the Hornets won a corner which ended with Deeney getting up free inside the area, but he was unable to get enough power on his header to really test Ederson.

City were rattled though, and after Gabriel Jesus had taken an age to leave the pitch to be replaced by Aymeric Laporte, Ederson’s time wasting saw him yellow-carded by referee Paul Tierney.

Foster went up as the pressure continued to intensify from two corners, but City saw off that danger as a spirited late effort was to go unrewarded as the hosts were unable to carve out another opportunity.

Watford: Foster; Femenia, Kabasele, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes (Quina 51), Chalobah (Deulofeu 63), Doucoure; Success (Gray 75), Pereyra; Deeney. Subs not used: Gomes, Mariappa, Masina, Wilmot.

Manchester City: Ederson; Walker, Stones, Kompany (Otamendi 83), Delph; Fernandinho; Mahrez; Bernardo, Silva (Gundogan 73), Mahrez; Gabriel Jesus (Laporte 88). Subs not used: Muric, Danilo, Sterling, Foden.

Bookings: Ederson for time wasting (90).

Attendance: 20,389.

Referee: Paul Tierney.