The record books will show Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first match in permanent charge of Manchester United ended in a 2-1 victory over Watford. But that fact doesn’t do justice to one of the Hornets’ best performances of the season that saw them leave Old Trafford with their heads held high and with justified cause to feel gutted at the outcome.

Javi Gracia’s men were at it from the very first whistle, positive in their mentality and play as they took the game to their hosts at every opportunity.

The United defence was to be far the busier as the visitors asked the majority of the attacking questions, so they had good reason to feel hard done by when the home side took the lead in the 28th minute as Marcus Rashford capitalised on fine Luke Shaw pass.

Ben Foster made a vital save to deny Anthony Martial a second soon after, but with the deficit still only at one the Hornets were able to approach the second half with vigour.

The game, if anything, was played even more in United’s half as Watford continued to knock on the door, but without finding an equaliser.

It was with a sense of cruel predictably therefore, that United made the game safe when an offside-looking Martial was given the second bite at the cherry after Foster had tried to cut out a Jesse Lingard cross.

United probably thought the points were there’s, but their opponents kept plugging away and were to score a richly-deserved goal in the last minute of normal time and in some style from Abdoulaye Doucuoure.

Ultimately though, the Hornets couldn't find the last ball or right decision often enough to get the reward the performance richly merited.

With two games to play in four days and the not so small matter of a FA Cup semi-final looming even larger on the horizon, Gracia made five changes from the starting XI that ended Crystal Palace’s Wembley hopes two weeks ago – and they were all at the back.

Ben Foster returned for Heurelho Gomes in goal, but the Hornets head coach opted to change all four players directly in front of him, meaning Daryl Janmaat, Christian Kabasele, Miguel Britos and Adam Masina came into the starting XI.

Solskjaer’s first selection as the permanent Manchester United manager showed four changes from the team which were knocked out of the cup last time by the Hornets’ semi-final opponents, Wolverhampton Wanderers.

David De Gea was back between the uprights, former Hornet Ashley Young – who had been suspended for the sixth-round clash – came in at right-back alongside another fresh inclusion Phil Jones, with Juan Mata the other change. They took the places of goalkeeper Sergio Romero, Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelof and Lingard.

Watford started promisingly, seeing plenty of the ball in the opening three minutes, with reverse pass from Janmaat putting Gerard Deulofeu in space on the right side of the area, but he was unable to pick out Troy Deeney with his attempted pass inside.

An even better opening arose three minutes later when Doucoure fed Masina on the left, he in turn played the ball forward to Roberto Pereyra, who worked it back infield to Doucoure as the shooting opportunity opened up, only for the Frenchman to snatch his effort wide of de Gea’s near post.

United were decidedly sluggish in the opening stages and more sloppy play, this time from Ander Herrera, allowed another promising situation to develop, which ended with Deeney shooting high and wide from 20 or so yards.

The home side first showed their class soon after when a slide-rule pass from Paul Pogba gave Rashford a first opportunity to use his pace, but Kabasele covered the threat well and got back to concede a corner.

Solskjaer was not happy though, soon racing off the bench to bark out orders, and moments later the Hornets weren’t far away from taking the lead when more good build-up play ended with Janmaat standing up a cross to the far post which Deeney headed back across the target, only for de Gea to plunge to his left and claw the ball away, sustaining an injury in the process which required treatment.

Will Hughes picked up the game’s first booking in the 18th minute for a clear body check on Pogba and the Red Devils were almost in soon after when Shaw got free on the left side of the area, but was unable to pick out Rashford in the middle.

Watford had been very good in the first 20 minutes though, and de Gea had to go to ground again to deal with a shot from Pereyra following more enterprising play in and around the United box.

Deulofeu was the next to test the United keeper; again it was an effort he would have expected to save but it was the end product of more good Hornets work after Pereyra had opted to keep a ball in play, rather than risk letting the hosts regroup at a throw-in.

There had been much to like about Watford’s play, but it was to be undone in the 28th minute when Deeney lost possession to Shaw, he advanced forward and spotting where Rashford wanted the pass, played a fine ball into his stride and the England forward calmly did the rest, beating the on-rushing Foster to give United the lead.

The Hornets had to stay in the game at this point, but four minutes later it was almost 2-0 when, following a corner, Mata played the ball across the Hornets’ area and it rebounded off Doucoure into the path of Martial, who looked odds-on to score, only to be thwarted by a fine Foster save.

Deeney finally got a favourable decision out of referee Stuart Attwell in the closing stages of the first half when Chris Smalling went over the top of him for the latest time and the set piece wasn’t too far away from yielding another good chance for the visitors, with the United defender getting up in time to prevent Britos getting his head on the end of Deulofeu’s good delivery.

The visitors were straight back on the front foot after the restart, with a Deulofeu shot from outside the area providing more practice for de Gea within the first 45 seconds.

Another opportunity came and went in the 51st minute when Janmaat fired an angled effort over after Doucoure had found him on the right side of the area after Deeney and Deulofeu had built play on the left side of the box.

De Gea was to be much more troubled soon after though, dropping sharply to his right to keep out a good drive from Pereyra which was destined for inside his near post.

Gracia made his first change after 55 minutes with Kiko Femenia replacing Janmaat, who headed straight for the dressing room, although he didn’t seem to be moving with undue discomfort.

The hosts may have still be in front but they remained far from convincing and after Pogba had been dispossessed by Femenia, the ball finally broke for Hughes on the right side of the area and he sent a left-footed curling effort narrowly wide of de Gea’s far post.

The Spanish keeper needed two attempts to gather an audacious 40-yard effort from Femenia after a corner had been pulled back to him, before Solskjaer made a double change to try and inject some life into his lacklustre side; Lingard and Andreas Pereira coming on for Mata and Herrera respectively.

Still the pattern of the game remained the same though, Deeney the next to test de Gea with a chip after Pereyra had back-heeled the ball into his path following passes from Hughes and Femenia as the visitors built from the right.

United had barely been out of their own half for much of the second period, but in the 74th minute they delivered a sucker punch that was tough for the visitors to take.

Having attacked down the right side of the area, Lingard played in a low cross to the suspiciously offside-looking Martial. Foster got a hand to the ball first, but it broke loose and the French forward managed to scoop it into the net to give United an undeserved second goal.

Gracia immediately sent on Andre Gray for Deulofeu before play restarted and, moments later, Matial was replaced by Marcos Rojo as Solskjaer made his final change.

Isaac Success was given a late run-out in place of Hughes, but with United beginning to think they’d got the job done they suffered a rude awakening in the last minute of normal time as Watford scored a deserved goal in real style.

After Pereyra had seen his attempted cross from the right spin up off a United defender, Doucoure played a pass into Success, he laid it off first time, Deeney dummied it through his legs and Doucoure continued his run through to dink the ball beyond de Gea to give the Hornets late hope.

Three minutes of stoppage time gave chance for one last opportunity and it looked like something might be on when Etienne Capoue was fouled 25 yards out. Pereyra opted to dink the ball into the area but Jones went down rather softly under a Britos challenge, Attwell blew for another set piece and with that Watford were beaten, but with their held well and truly high.

Manchester United: De Gea; Young, Jones, Smalling, Shaw; Matic (Lingard 62), Herrera (Pereira 62); Mata, Pogba, Martial (Rojo 77), Rashford. Subs not used: Romero, Lukaku, Fred, Dalot.

Watford: Foster; Janmaat (Femenia 55), Kabasele, Britos, Masina; Hughes (Success 81), Doucoure, Capoue, Pereyra; Deeney, Deulofeu (Gray 74). Subs not used: Gomes, Cathcart, Quina, Holebas.

Bookings: Hughes for as foul on Pogba (18); Masina for a foul on Rashford (83).

Attendance: 74,543.

Referee: Stuart Attwell.