Watford paid the price for a lethargic and listless first hour, and a lack of quality in the final third again, as they were beaten 1-0 at home by Cardiff City.

The Hornets increased the urgency and tempo in the last 30 minutes and had their moments in the Bluebirds box, but they were ultimately undone by a fine strike from Josh Bowler two minutes before the break.

The 1-1 draw in the corresponding game in South Wales at the start of October started a run that had seen Valerien Ismael’s side beaten only three times in their next 22 matches in all competitions, two of which were defeats against the top two in the Championship at the time.

Hornets fans would have been hoping their side would have been looking to stamp their authority on the game from the outset in their first league outing at Vicarage Road in 2024.

Instead, they looked subdued, flat even from the first whistle and rarely threatened to inject any energy into their display during one of the least entertaining halves of football seen at Vicarage Road this season.

It was all the more frustrating because when they did rouse themselves they suggested they could threaten, but the fact right-back Ryan Andrews produced two of their better attacking moments of the opening period spoke volumes.

The nature of the game suggested that a moment of quality – or a mistake – would make the difference and it was the left boot of Bowler that delivered it, although both Mattie Pollock and Jamal Lewis should have done better in the build-up to the goal.

It took a triple change from Ismael just before the hour to finally start to lift the Hornets from their slumber and they had moments when they threatened, but a couple of deflections worked out in the visitors’ favour before Ken Sema had his pocket picked when he had the best chance of an equaliser near the end.

Although this was Watford’s first home game of 2024, they have now failed to win in their last five league matches at Vicarage Road.

Perhaps of more immediate concern though, is this was the fourth successive match in which they have not scored from open play.

That is an issue that needs addressing if they are to remain in close contention for a play-off place, although it doesn’t get any easier in the short-term with leaders Leicester City next on the league agenda after Tuesday’s FA Cup replay at fellow Premier League promotion challengers Southampton.

Ismael made just the one change from the team that drew 0-0 at Sheffield Wednesday on Wednesday, with Yaser Asprilla coming back into the starting XI in place of Tom Dele-Bashiru.

Unlike their opponents who had played twice in the previous six days, Cardiff’s last outing was on January 20 and since then they have been busy in the transfer market, making five new signings.

Boss Erol Bulut made three changes from the team that lost 3-1 at Plymouth Argyle last time out, one of which was enforced following Andy Rinomhota’s loan move to Rotherham United, but none of the new faces featured in the starting XI.

In came Kion Etete, Bowler and Manolis Siopis, with Yakou Meite and Ollie Tanner dropping to a bench that included four of the five new additions – Nat Phillips, David Turnbull, Famara Diedhiou and Josh Wilson-Esbrand. The fifth, goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, was not involved.

Watford were content to play keep ball in the opening stages as the Bluebirds set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation as the first ten minutes passed without either penalty area being seriously troubled.

The first semblance of an opening came in the 11th minute when Matheus Martins took on and beat left-back Jamilu Collins on the outside before delivering a good cross which Asprilla was shaping up to try and volley at the far post before it was headed away from him.

An incisive pass from Andrews then almost put Vakoun Bayo through on goal, but Dimitrios Goutas got back to put the ball behind for the first corner of the contest which the visitors dealt with.

Pollock was forced to concede the Hornets’ first corner soon after, but again this posed few problems for the defence, as a spark was still being sought for the game to catch light.

Bowler mustered the first shot of the contest in the 22nd minute when he struck a left-footed half-volley wide of Ben Hamer’s left-hand post from the edge of the penalty area after the visitors had recycled play from a corner.

But that briefly kicked the Hornets into life as Martins released the underlapping Andrews in the area and his well-struck low right-footed effort was pushed away by Jak Alnwick as a goalkeeper was tested for the first time.

The hosts got in again when Ismael Kone clipped the ball beyond the back post where Lewis headed back into the danger zone, but Asprilla wanted a touch rather than taking it first time and Alnwick was able to block with his foot and his defence were able to clear.

Cardiff had the next opportunity in the 31st minute when Reuben Colwill exchanged passes on the edge of the area as he came inside before hitting a left-footed shot over the top.

Alnwick was extended again seven minutes later, tipping over a fine effort from Andrews who tried to catch the keeper out with a curling effort inside his near post from the right after Giorgi Chakvetadze had played the ball into the right-back.

Watford had been marginally the more threatening of two mediocre sides in the first half, but they were stunned two minutes before the break when Cardiff took the lead.

Perry Ng played the ball into Bowler right of centre outside the area and he was initially able to get away from Pollock before turning back inside Lewis to hit a fine left-footed curler beyond Hamer into the far corner to make it 1-0.

Chakvetadze then picked up the first booking of the afternoon for a foul on Collins before the Hornets had an opportunity to get quickly back on terms when Lewis played the ball into space in the 18-yard box from the left but Asprilla stabbed wide as the home side trailed at the break.

Watford had to start the second half better, but their predicament almost got worst within four minutes of the restart when Pollock was booked for pulling back Colwill just outside the D, but Ng curled the free-kick low and not too far wide of Hamer’s left-hand post.

Two Watford bookings quickly became three when Jake Livermore was cautioned for a foul, also on Colwill, who was soon to see yellow himself for continuing his protests after not getting the benefit of a decision.

The Bluebirds had started the second period much the better of the two sides though, with Ng chancing his arm again from distance with a right-footed shot that flew over.

It came as no surprise that Ismael started to ready his substitutes ten minutes into the second half as Hamer had to field another shot, this time from Siopis.

With Mileta Rajovic, Ken Sema and Emmanuel Dennis preparing to enter the fray, the break down of a Cardiff attack almost presented the Hornets with a route back into the game as they regained possession before Asprilla played the ball from right to left, inside to Chakvetadze in midfield. He released Martins who in turn fed the overlapping Lewis and his low ball into the near post was met by Kone, whose effort was deflected onto the woodwork and behind.

The triple change was made in the 59th minute with Martins, Chakvetadze and Bayo making way and soon after Cardiff made their first substitution, with Turnbull replacing Colwill.

Watford though, were finally showing signs of belatedly offering a greater threat, their next opportunity coming when Andrews won the ball back and fed Rajovic who found Dennis on the right side of the area, but his shot was deflected up and through to Alnwick.

Next, Dennis squared to Asprilla around 22 yards out but he couldn’t keep his left-footed strike down before Bowler received the visitors’ second yellow card for a foul on Kone in the centre circle.

Cardiff had not threatened too much since the first ten minutes of the second half but they had an opportunity when Bowler curled over a free-kick from the right but skipper Ryan Wintle couldn’t keep his header down.

A double change followed for the visitors as Wilson-Esbrand and Mahlon Romeo came on for Bowler and Ng respectively.

Watford were increasingly ramping up the pressure and in the 76th minute a relieved Alnwick watched a Wesley Hoedt shot deflect narrowly wide of his right-hand post, with the keeper rooted to the spot.

Dele-Bashiru replaced Livermore but the Hornets then survived a scare when Karlan Grant went to ground in the area under a challenge from Lewis, but referee John Busby was unmoved.

The substitutions continued with Diedhiou and Phillips coming on for Etete and Collins before the Hornets forced a couple of corners, the second of which saw Hoedt flick a near-post header over the top.

Watford would have been hoping a chance fell to Dennis as they sought an equaliser and one did arrive four minutes from the end of normal time when he was given a second bite at the cherry on the right side of the area, but the angle always looked to be against him and he shot behind.

Dele-Bashiru made a better fist from much further out soon after but his 25-yard piledriver was parried away by Alnwick, before the Hornets looked odds-on to equalise when a lovely through ball from Dennis released Andrews in the area, his cut back found Rajovic who looked to have laid it on a plate for Sema, only for the ball to be nicked off his toe at the last.

Goutas saw yellow for a scything challenge on Kone outside the area after the referee had played an advantage which didn’t work in the Hornets’ favour as the game moved into five minutes of stoppage time.

Watford continued to press, sending Hamer up for a late corner which was met by the head of Dennis but his effort was straight at Alnwick as the visitors were able to see the remaining time out to gain the points.

Watford: Hamer; Andrews, Pollock, Hoedt, Lewis; Livermore (Dele-Bashiru 77); Martins (Dennis 59), Kone, Chakvetadze (Sema 59), Asprilla; Bayo (Rajovic 59). Subs not used: Bachmann, Sierralta, Porteous, Ince, Morris.

Cardiff City: Alnwick; Ng (Romeo 73), Goutas, McGuinness, Collins (Phillips 81); Wintle, Siopis; Bowler (Wilson-Esbrand 73), Colwill (Turnbull 62), Grant; Etete (Diedhiou 81). Subs not used: Turner, Ramsey, Meite, Tanner.

Bookings: Chakvetadze for a foul on Collins (44); Pollock for a foul on Colwill (47); Livermore for a foul on Colwill (50); Colwill for dissent (51); Bowler for a foul on Kone (69); Goutas for a foul on Kone (90).

Attendance: 19,739.

Referee: John Busby.