Watford were unable to put a dent in Leicester City’s seemingly inevitable return to the Premier League as the Foxes further strengthened their grip at the top of the Championship with a 2-1 victory at Vicarage Road, but there were positives to take from the performance as the Hornets move on to Norwich City on Tuesday night.

It looked like it may be a long afternoon when the loss of Vakoun Bayo with a very early injury was further compounded by Leicester taking the lead from the penalty spot through Patson Daka after Dennis Praet had capitalised on Giorgi Chakvetadze leaving a leg dangling in the 18-yard box.

There was an expectation the visitors would go for the jugular and try and kill the game off early, but while they looked very comfortable they were also largely content to sit on what they had, leading to Ben Hamer having a quieter afternoon than he probably expected.

Watford gradually grew into the game as an attacking force and got into some positions where they could threaten the Foxes backline, but the quality was again lacking in the final third.

However, Leicester flicked the switch early in the second half, sucking their opponents in as they played out from the back before Ricardo Pereira started and finished the business end of a quality move to double their advantage.

Enzo Maresca’s wish to play out from the back carries its risks though, but few would have expected Harry Winks to be the player to commit an awful mistake that gifted substitute Emmanuel Dennis his first goal since returning to Vicarage Road and the Hornets a route back into the game.

Watford pushed to back into the game but the clear-cut chance they craved, or a moment of magic on the ball, eluded them as their winless run stretched to a sixth game in all competitions.

They looked more like themselves though, tried to get the ball forward more frequently and with greater purpose than in last weekend’s poor first hour against Cardiff City, but their inability to create good quality chances remains concerning.

Valerien Ismael made four changes from the XI that started Tuesday night’s 3-0 FA Cup fourth round replay defeat at Southampton.

Ben Hamer returned for Dan Bachmann in goal, Jamal Lewis replaced James Morris at left-back, Jake Livermore was back in for Francisco Sierralta in midfield, while Bayo was preferred to Mileta Rajovic up front.

Leicester came into the game with an 11-point cushion at the summit of the Championship and Maresca’s starting XI showed three alterations from the one he named for last weekend’s 5-0 victory at Stoke City.

Ben Nelson came in for the injured Jannik Vestergaard in the centre of defence, while James Justin and Dennis Praet were preferred to Callum Doyle and Stephy Mavidi, both of whom were on the bench.

Watford went straight at their opponents from the first whistle but within 80 seconds they suffered a blow when Bayo went to try and press keeper Mads Hermansen, only to pull up with nobody near him. The striker’s game was over before it had barely started and Rajovic was back into the fray much sooner than he, or anyone, could have expected.

The early injury concerns continued when Ryan Porteous appeared to hold the top of his hamstring. Although he was able to carry on, Sierralta was sent out to warm up as a precaution.

There was little goalmouth action of note in the opening ten minutes but that changed when Daka played a good pass out to the right where Praet advanced into the area, checked back inside Chakvetzadze and went to ground and referee Oliver Langford immediately pointed to the spot.

Although the spot-kick award looked soft, replays showed the Giorgian had left out a leg and Daka duly capitalised from 12 yards, drilling the ball low to Hamer’s right and into the corner to make it 1-0.

The game continued to be played largely in the middle third of the pitch but the Foxes almost got in again when Daka came short to receive the ball, Porteous went with him and was left trailing in his wake as the striker turned before releasing Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, but the midfielder was closed down and hit his shot high and wide of the target from the edge of the area.

Porteous was soon involved again, launching Daka into the air with a hefty challenge which the referee adjudged to be fair and was happy to let the game continue. Ismael Kone eventually kicked the ball into touch to allow the scorer to receive treatment, but after gingerly been helped from the pitch he returned to a chorus of boos from the Rookery.

The Hornets were growing into the game from an attacking perspective as the half-hour approach, with Lewis increasingly able to find some space on the left flank.

A whipped in Sema free-kick from the right that was headed up in the air by a Leicester player caused Hermansen problems as he tried to gather, before he was the given the benefit of a referee’s decision, and then the keeper had to drop to his right to hold a Wes Hoedt effort from distance.

Winks received the game’s first booking in the 37th minute for pulling back Sema, but only after the referee had played a good advantage as the Swedish international managed to escape the clutches of the former Spurs midfielder and showed great desire to escape the attention of more Foxes players as he surged downfield, lifting the crowd in the process.

Watford continued to press as the half came to a close but, as has often been the case in recent games, promising positions were foundering on the quality of the deliveries into the box.

Five minutes of additional time were signalled at the end of the opening period but they largely passed without incident as the visitors took their one-goal lead into the break, although Praet was booked just before the half-time whistle for pulling down Sema.

The Hornets continued to see plenty of the ball at the start of the second half and had their first sight of an opening in the 49th minute when Sema played in an early cross from the left and Rajovic’s side-footed effort was deflected behind.

Leicester had offered relatively little as an attacking force but in the 56th minute they cut their opponents apart with a superb move to double their lead.

It started with Hermansen who played the ball out to Ricardo, he laid it off to Winks, but the Hornets were sucked in as he passed forward, leaving a big hole for Ricardo to exploit. He advanced before laying the ball to his right where Abdul Fatawu passed back inside, leaving the right-back who was by now in the heart of the penalty area with a routine finish to make it 2-0.

Watford needed a response quickly to stay in the game and they weren’t too far away from getting it when a Lewis cross from the right was deflected not too far wide of the far post by the outstretched leg of Wout Faes.

Ismael had been warming up his substitutes and on the hour opted for a triple change, bringing on Dennis, Yaser Asprilla and Ryan Andrews for Sema, substitute Rajovic and Martins.

Those replacements were made after Kone had won a free-kick on the edge of the area and Dennis’ first involvement was to take it, but his strike deflected off the top of the wall and over.

Leicester then made their first change as Doyle replaced Nelson, but in the 63rd minute the Hornets were gifted a route back into the game due to a calamitous mistake from Winks.

Hermansen passed the ball out to the midfielder, who tried to play it back to his keeper but made a complete hash of the pass, instead laying it on a plate for Dennis to score the first goal of his second spell at Vicarage Road to make it 2-1.

Hoedt then tried a long-range special that had Hermansen scampered across goal as it went wide before more changes followed in the 71st minute, with Jamie Vardy replacing Daka and Tom Ince coming on for Chakvetadze.

The hosts were pressing though, and Dennis saw an effort from a tight angle blocked behind by legs of Hermansen, but it took an interception from Lewis to prevent the Foxes from getting in at the other end when they had a three-on-two situation after a Vardy flick had sent Dewsbury-Hall racing away from halfway.

Watford came under more pressure when Porteous was booked for bringing down Doyle a couple of yards outside the area, but the Foxes were unable to make it count as Ricardo tamely lifted the ball over the wall into Hamer’s gloves.

The hosts had the next opportunity when Asprilla played the ball into Dennis on the area. A softer touch on the turn would have put him through on goal, but he got too much on it and the ball sat up for Ince, but he fired over.

The Foxes made a double change with eight minutes of normal time remaining as former Hornets loanee Hamza Choudhury and Mavididi replaced Praet and Fatawu.

Faes had already got the benefit of one deflection and he went even closer to putting through his own net with five minutes of normal time remaining, this time when an Asprilla shot caught his foot sending the ball narrowly wide of the far post.

Watford kept the pressure on from the corner though, this time when a cross from the right was helped on and Hoedt found himself in space at the back post, but the flag went up after his toe-poked effort had been blocked by Hermansen.

The signalling of seven minutes of additional time offered renewed hope Watford could still get something out of the game, but little of note happened until the fifth of those minutes when Hoedt and Vardy were both booked after going eyeball-to-eyeball following a scuffle for the ball.

But the Foxes safely navigated the latter stages to take another step closer to a return to the Premier League, while the Hornets remain 11th in the table, but are now six points outside the play-offs.

Watford: Hamer; Dele-Bashiru, Porteous, Hoedt, Lewis; Livermore; Chakvetadze (Ince 71); Martins (Andrews 60), Kone, Sema (Dennis 60); Bayo (Rajovic 3 (Asprilla 60)). Subs not used: Bachmann, Sierralta, Pollock, Morris.

Leicester City: Hermansen; Ricardo, Nelson (Doyle 62), Faes, Justin; Praet (Choudhury 82), Winks; Fatawu (Mavididi 82), Dewsbury-Hall, McAteer; Daka (Vardy 71). Subs not used: Stolarczyk, Coady, Cannon, Akgun, Alves.

Bookings: Winks for pulling back Sema (37); Praet for a foul on Sema (45); Porteous for a foul on Doyle (76); Hoedt for a confrontation with Vardy (90+5); Vardy for a confrontation with Hoedt (90+5).

Referee: Oliver Langford.