Watford’s season on the road ended in disappointing fashion with a 3-0 defeat at Chelsea that leaves their hopes of a top-10 finish resting on next week’s final game of the campaign against West Ham United.

The Hornets were positive from the outset, played some good attacking football and would have taken an early lead had a Troy Deeney header not been superbly saved by Kepa Arrizabalaga.

But the concern that they would be made to pay for not taking their chances was to be rammed home within five minutes of the restart when they were exposed from two corners in quick succession – Ruben Loftus-Cheek and David Luiz the beneficiaries.

The visitors tried to gain a foothold back in the contest but more poor defending, this time from Craig Cathcart, enabled Gonzalo Higuain to take a big step to securing a Champions League place.

Javi Gracia made two changes to the side that lost 2-1 at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers last time out.

Deeney, as expected, returned from his three-game suspension while Nathaniel Chalobah was given the nod to make his first league start since early December in place of the injured Etienne Capoue. Andre Gray dropped to a bench that also featured Tom Cleverley for the first time since his injury lay-off.

With the second leg of their Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt to come on Thursday, Maurizio Sarri made four alterations to the team that drew the opening encounter 1-1 in Germany.

In came Marcos Alonso, Mateo Kovacic, Higuain and Eden Hazard, with Loftus-Cheek, Olivier Giroud and Willian dropping to the bench, while Emerson was not involved in the match-day 18.

Chalobah had some encouraging early touches as his teammates started promisingly, having the first opportunity in the sixth minute when Gerard Deulofeu received the ball with his back to goal and turned neatly inside away from Andreas Christensen before lashing a right-footed drive not too far wide of Arrizabalaga’s right-hand post from 20 yards.

The Spanish keeper had to be watchful on that occasion but soon after he had to produce a stunning save to prevent Deeney from heading the Hornets in front.

The visitors maintained their early pressure by winning a second corner which was taken short on the left and played back to Jose Holebas, he swung in a cross and the Hornets skipper met it with a header that was destined for the top corner until Arrizabalaga got across and with his ‘wrong’ right hand pushed the ball onto the post to keep the game goalless.

Chelsea were to suffer a blow in the 10th minute when N’Golo Kante was forced out of the game through injury with Loftus-Cheek taking his place in midfield.

The Blues had barely stirred as an attacking force, but in the 14th minute Hazard was able to find space for the first time on the right side of the penalty area, playing the ball back to Jorginho whose attempted clipped effort was held by Ben Foster at the second attempt.

Moments later Adrian Mariappa did well to get in a challenge as Higuain looked to pull the trigger, but the Hornets were soon threatening again at the other end with Deulofeu screwing a shot wide after combining with Will Hughes.

Watford were the better side at this stage and the home fans were starting to get restless after Holebas had fizzed a drive from the left side of the 18-yard box narrowly over the top after more positive approach work with Abdoulaye Doucuoure, who had made an impressive start to the contest, again heavily involved.

Foster had to move sharply off his line to prevent Hazard from getting on the end of a Jorginho through ball, but the home side were still struggling to deal with Watford’s attacking advances as this time Deeney and Roberto Pereyra combined to try and set up Doucuoure, but the Frenchman was off balance and sliced wide.

The home side optimistically appealed for a penalty on the half-hour when David Luiz went down in a tussle with Kiko Kemenia as he sought to get on the end of a Higuain cross, but referee Paul Tierney was quick to wave away the hosts’ protests.

Chelsea had their best spell in terms of possession in the opposition half thereafter, but Gracia’s men remained at a good level and were not unduly alarmed defensively. But that changed three minutes before the interval when Pedro played a one-two and received the ball back to the right of centre on the edge of the 18-yard box and unleashed a fierce drive that flew wide of the far post with Foster at full stretch.

However, the visitors almost had another opportunity in the last minute of the half when Pereyra crossed from the left and Hughes was caught on his heels when he might have got on the end of it had he opted to gamble as a positive opening period for Gracia’s side ended goalless.

But that positivity was to rapidly evaporate within five minutes of the restart.

It was no surprise that Hazard was the instigator, getting away from Chalobah on the left side of the area before fizzing in a cross-shot which Foster diverted away for a corner. That set-piece was taken short from the left to Hazard, who stood up a cross to the far post and Loftus-Cheek got up above Chalobah too easily to head the Blues into a 48th minute lead.

Chelsea immediately sought to turn the screw and it took them only three minutes to do so, again from a corner which Hazard took deeper and David Luiz lost Mariappa and was unmarked as he thumped a header past Foster to double the home side’s advantage.

Watford were rocked but they had a good chance to get back into the contest when Deeney’s cross-field ball picked out Deulofeu on the left side of the area and he struck a left-footed effort across goal and narrowly wide of the post.

That could have made it 2-1 but soon after Chelsea almost put the game to bed when Hazard laid the ball back to Pedro, his low left-footed shot was well kept out by Foster and Loftus-Cheek hit the follow up back across goal and wide with Femenia getting back on the line in case his intervention was required.

The Hornets keeper was again called upon to make a good save from a Higuain shot on the turn after Jorginho had threaded a pass through, but the visitors were still offering a threat going forward, with Deulofeu often leading it.

Chalobah’s first-team return was ended when he made way for midway through the second half before Chelsea made certain of the points with 15 minutes remaining.

Again the Hornets were found wanting defensively, this time Cathcart who let Higuain run in behind him unhindered to take a Pedro pass in his stride and lift his finish over Foster to make it 3-0. The keeper responded by tearing a strip off his teammate and with good reason.

The on-loan striker was to be replaced by Giroud with 12 minutes of normal time remaining, but not before Watford should have pulled one back when Holebas exchanged passes with Pereyra and continued his run infield, only to lean back at the wrong moment and fire over on his right foot via the top of the crossbar.

Gracia changed his strike-force in the 82nd minute, bringing on Isaac Success and Gray for Deeney and Deulofeu.

Prior to the substitution, Deeney had been fouled on the left edge of the 18-yard box and Pereyra whipped in the resultant free-kick, his delivery beating Arrizabalaga and rebounding back off the far post for Success to head in from point-blank range.

However, his celebrations were curtailed by a linesman’s flag and replays showed Success had headed the ball into Gray before it crossed the line, hence the reason it was flagged offside.

Giroud should have made it 4-0 in the 82nd minute when he miscued an attempted finish over the target from a Hazard cross from the right, before Gary Cahill was afforded a rapturous ovation when he replaced David Luiz for what is set to be his final appearance in a Blues shirt.

Hazard could have made it four when he hit the side netting, but Watford were left to ponder a season that has seen an improved consistency of performance against the so-called ‘top six’ but has yielded a return of just three points from these fixtures.

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Christensen, David Luiz (Cahill 88, Alonso; Kante (Loftus-Cheek 10), Jorginho, Kovacic; Pedro, Higuain (Giroud 78), Hazard. Subs not used: Caballero, Barkley, Zappacosta, Willian.

Watford: Foster; Femenia, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucoure, Chalobah (Cleverley 66), Pereyra; Deulofeu (Success 82), Deeney (Gray 82). Subs not used: Gomes, Janmaat, Masina, Kabasele.

Bookings: Doucoure for a foul on Hazard (90).

Referee: Paul Tierney.