Watford will head to Wembley on Sunday for their FA Cup semi-final in fine spirits after a ruthless second-half performance confirmed Fulham’s relegation fate with a 4-1 victory.

The Hornets’ 13th victory of the season moved them up to 46 points – both club records in the Premier League – but it needed the decisive actions of Javi Gracia to help turn the tide in the home side’s favour.

Although a good strike from Abdoulaye Doucoure gave the hosts the lead midway through the first half, Watford were tentative and well below-par for much of the opening period and could have no real complaints when Ryan Babel equalised.

Gracia acted at the start of the second half though, making two changes and switching to three at the back and it was to very much have the desired effect, albeit it took Watford some time to take command.

But when they did it was with real style as Will Hughes cracked home a superb volley after a corner had been headed clear to the edge of the area.

The Hornets then took complete command as the impressive Andre Gray set up Troy Deeney for the third before the substitute soon turned provider again as Kiko Femenia made it four.

One of the main talking points ahead of the game was how strong a side Javi Gracia would select with Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final looming on the horizon. His selection showed four changes from the team that was unfortunate to lose at Manchester United but, like on Saturday, all four adjustments were in defence as he named arguably his strongest XI, making his intentions very clear from the outset.

With a mathematical return to the Championship potentially only 90 minutes away, Scott Parker made two changes to the team that was beaten 2-0 at home by Manchester City last time out, but he was boosted by the return of Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Tim Ream also came in as the Cottagers’ caretaker boss opted to go with three at the back; Timothy Fosu-Mensah dropped to the bench but Floyd Ayite was not in the match-day 18.

The Hornets could have created the first clear opening inside two minutes when Roberto Pereyra latched on to a poor cross-field pass from Ream and burst forward. But instead of trying to slide in Deeney to his left, the Argentinian opted to try and feed Doucuoure through the more congested central part of the penalty area and the opportunity was lost.

Watford were soon starting to try and capitalise on the significant gaps Fulham were leaving in midfield, but it was the visitors who were to have the first attempt on goal when Mitrovic got up to head a Cyrus Christie cross from the right wide of Ben Foster’s left-hand post.

Buoyed by that opportunity, the visitors had a reasonable couple of minutes in the opposition half, only for their hosts to almost create the next opening when Pereyra spun superbly away from Calum Chambers on the left side of the area, but his shot was blocked.

However, Fulham were continuing to play with promise and they were almost away in the 19th minute when Babel slipped in Ryan Sessegnon on the edge of the area, only for his first touch to let him down.

Next Sessegnon attacked in field off the right flank and found Mitrovic, whose shot was comfortable enough for Foster, but it was another moment of encouragement for the visitors. It wasn’t to last much longer.

The Hornets start hadn’t been their best but after a diving header from Deeney had glanced a good Femenia cross from the right wide, the home side’s next attack saw Doucoure win the ball back on the right, Hughes did well to keep the move going and find the Frenchman was able to exploit the space in front of him before crashing a left foot shot past Sergio Rico to give Watford a 23rd-minute lead.

That should have been the platform for the Hornets to push on – and for a few minutes it looked like they would – but in the 33rd minute Fulham levelled, and it was deserved.

After Watford had again been sloppy in possession, Sessegnon caused the problems with a ball in from the right and Babel left Adrian Mariappa floundering in his wake as he latched onto the pass and rounded Foster before slotting home to make it 1-1.

Fulham’s confidence grew from that point while their hosts were increasingly tentative, edgy and lacking in composure.

Mariappa picked up the game’s first yellow card two minutes before the interval when he scythed down Mitrovic beneath the Elton John Stand, but the half-time whistle blew leaving Gracia with plenty of work to do at the break.

He acted decisively, making a double change as Daryl Janmaat and Gray replaced Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu respectively, and switching to three at the back.

Janmaat’s first involvement of note though, was to pick up a yellow card after clattering into Tom Cairney, but there were worrying signs for the Hornets soon after when Jose Holebas’ foot slipped from under him as he made a challenge and he went down holding his groin area.

However, he was able to continue following some treatment and was then to stand up a cross from the by-line which was inadvertently flicked on by Chambers and required a helping over his own bar by Rico.

While still not convincing, Watford were enjoying much more of the game and they almost created an opportunity when Janmaat surged forward out of defence, found Gray on the edge of the box, he in turn slipped a pass to Deeney and Janmaat tried to get there, but slid in on Rico as the keeper gathered the ball and got a painful blow for his troubles.

Mitrovic almost put Babel in at the other end, but Foster did well to stand his ground before blocking with his body, but play soon switched back to the other end with Doucoure taking too long over one shot, but Gray acted much more decisively moments later, getting away a well-struck early effort which was deflected narrowly wide.

But the Hornets did not have long to wait to take the lead – and it was worth it.

After a delivery from a corner had been headed clear to the edge of the area, Hughes met the ball with a superb left-footed volley that thundered past Rico via the underside of the bar to make it 2-1 in the 63rd minute.

The Hornets now had Fulham where they wanted them and six minutes later they established clear daylight when a good build-up ended with Gray bursting between two defenders before unselfishly squaring for Deeney to fire in the third.

Parker made his first change before play restarted, bringing on Jean Michel Seri for Ream, but Watford were now rampant and Holebas was the next to try his luck with a cross-shot that was deflected narrowly wide.

The fourth wasn’t long in coming though, and again Gray was pivotal as he again did well to lay a chance on a plate for Femenia to finish emphatically into the top corner to make it 4-1.

With the points in the bag, Domingos Quina replaced Etienne Capoue, but Fulham would then have had a second had it not been for a superb stop from Foster, producing a top reflex save to thwart Seri after Mitrovic’s route to goal had been blocked.

The Hornets were hunting more goals though, and Rico had to grab the ball at the second attempt to keep out a Doucuoure header from a Janmaat cross.

Holebas got involved in some rather unnecessary handbags with Christie in the closing stages, but to Fulham’s credit they at least went down on the front foot. For the Hornets though, they now head to Wembley in very good heart.

Watford: Foster; Femenia, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucoure, Capoue (Quina 77), Pereyra (Janmaat 46); Deulofeu (Gray 46), Deeney. Subs not used: Gomes, Masina, Sema, Kabasele.

Fulham: Rico; Chambers, Le Marchand, Ream (Seri 72); Christie, Zambo Anguissa, Cairney (McDonald 87), Bryan; Sessegnon, Babel (Schurrle 81); Mitrovic. Subs not used: Fabri, Odoi, Kebano, Fosu-Mensah.

Bookings: Mariappa for a foul on Mitrovic (43); Janmaat for a foul on Cairney (47); Holebas booked for scuffle with Christie (88); Christie booked for scuffle with Holenbas (88).

Attendance: 17,301.

Referee: Roger East.