A late Jurrien Timber header meant Watford were beaten 2-1 by Ajax in their opening game of pre-season in Saalfelden, Austria on Thursday evening.

The Hornets opened the scoring through Andre Gray’s penalty late on in the first-half before Donny van de Beek’s equaliser shortly after the break restored parity. 

The game seemed destined to end in a draw, but Timber’s late header looped past substitute Pontus Dalhberg and gave Ajax the victory.

Daniel Bachmann found himself the busier of the two goalkeepers in the first-half, with shots from Quincy Promes and van de Beek forcing him to react to keep the Hornets on level terms. However, Watford’s defence was solid for the most part and reduced the Dutch champions to speculative efforts from outside the box.

The Hornets’ one significant defensive lapse allowed Ajax to create their best chance of the half, which fell to Promes on the half hour mark.

The Dutchman was played into the 18-yard-box completely unmarked, but Bachmann raced off his line and got down swiftly to keep the shot out.

Watford battled well in the centre of the park and more than matched the Champions League semi-finalists for physicality, with Etienne Capoue putting in an customarily solid performance, while youngster Harry Forster looked far from out of place alongside the Watford first-team regulars.

Javi Gracia's men looked good value for their lead when they broke the deadlock five minutes before the break.

The goal was scored by Gray, but the bulk of the credit ought to go to returning striker Stefano Okaka for the key role he played in setting up the opportunity.

The Italian produced a dazzling display of skill to shake off two challenges on the half-way line, before playing the ball forward to the advancing Abdoulaye Doucoure. The Frenchman linked up neatly with Gray in attack before a Sergino Dest handball gave Watford the penalty. 

Gray struck the ball hard and low into the bottom corner from the spot and the Golden Boys went in happiest at half-time, despite not creating all that much. 

Gracia made wholesale changes at the break, with new signing Craig Dawson among those joining the game to make his first Hornets’ appearance.

He found himself having to work hard right from the start of the second period, as Ajax levelled the scoring just six minutes after the restart through van de Beek.

Dusan Tadic managed to wriggle free from Jose Holebas in the corner before pulling the ball back to the midfielder, via a clever dummy from Kasper Dolberg, and he rifled the ball into the bottom corner past a helpless Dahlberg. 

Jurgen Ekkelenkamp then had two great chances to put Ajax ahead just after the hour mark when he first picked up the ball in space in the Hornets’ area from a throw-in, but he drove his effort wide.

Moments later, he was played clean through on goal by van de Beek’s well-measured pass, only to be denied by a spritely Dahlberg, who did well to narrow the angle.

With 15 minutes left on the clock, it seemed as if Watford had given Ajax the perfect chance to go ahead when Ryan Gravenberch tumbled theatrically in front of Dawson and the referee blew his whistle. Instead, the Ajax substitute was given a yellow card for simulation and the free kick went the other way. 

However, late drama eventually saw Ajax go in front when van de Beek’s delivery from deep was flicked on by substitute Timber and the ball looped agonisingly past Dahlberg’s fingertips and into the corner of the net to give Ajax the win and leave Watford feeling disappointed after a steady enough performance.