Football can be a cruel game and that was exactly what Watford Women found out at Vicarage Road this afternoon.

That they didn’t get some reward from the game with Championship leaders Sunderland was harsh enough, but the final 3-0 scoreline was extremely lop-sided and didn’t reflect the game.

Watford more than matched their high-flying visitors, and ran the show for the first 45 minutes.

Dre Georgiou was a colossus in midfield, combining strength and tenacity with guile and craft to pull the strings as the Hornets pushed and pulled the Black Cats all over the place.

Behind Georgiou, Sophie McLean was in imperious form. Her transition from midfield to the heart of the defence has been so smooth she looked like she has played there all her life as she was the pivot that moved the ball from side to side or drove into midfield.

Sunderland had their moments but the first half was Watford’s and the only thing lacking from one of their best 45s of the season was a goal.

All seemed set for them to push on in the second half, but the visitors found a goal out of nowhere that was very much against the balance of play, and suddenly the task became harder.

However still Watford stretched the league leaders and it was only when Sunderland scored twice in quick succession as the game entered the final 20 minutes – the first benefitting from a kind bounce off the crossbar and the second a penalty – that the game was up.

With only three games left and Watford six points from safety, the hopes of staying in the Championship are now hanging by a thread.

Nonetheless, this was a performance that showed they are not going down without a fight, and certainly deserved a far better outcome than a defeat which, on paper, looks far more comfortable for the leaders than it actually was.

There was an early scare when Mary McAteer stole the ball in the third minute and broke clear down the right.

Her low ball into the box was perfect for Katie Kitching to run onto but she fired a firm shot straight at keeper Beth Howard.

There were strong penalty shouts soon after from Watford when Ellie Head was bundled over in the box but referee Megan Wilson wasn’t interested.

The Hornets threatened again after nine minutes when some patient approach play ended with Carly Johns moving the ball square for Dre Georgiou to fire wide from 20 yards.

A deep free-kick in the 23rd minutes from Coral Haines was flicked on and Anne Meiwald met the ball at the back post with a looping header that was hacked clear from near the line.

During that set-piece Harley Bennett picked up an injury and Watford were forced into an early change, sending on Lucia Leon.

Good work in midfield from Dre Georgiou allowed Poppy Wilson to turn and shoot from 20 yards but Claudia Moan was well positioned to hold.

In the 34th minute a corner caused a minor scramble and when the ball popped up Elizabeta Ejupi nodded goalwards but Howard held the ball above her head.

In the 41st minute Watford came within inches of taking the lead when, having been a free-kick 25 yards out, Abbie Lafayette curled the ball round the wall but narrowly wide of the top corner.

A minute into first-half stoppage time Haines hit a deep cross that Johns ran onto but her downward header was smothered at the base of the post by the diving Moan.

It was an excellent first half from Watford who created more, dominated possession and bridged the gap between top and bottom of the table.

Four minutes into the second half a persistent burst down the right from Leon saw her break two tackles before cutting the ball back. Johns struck a first-time shot but the effort was deflect wide.

Shortly after Johns took control of a throw in the box and set a shot towards the far post which was diverted wide of the near post by a stretching defender.

Against the run of play Sunderland went ahead in the 58th minute. A long ball was hoisted into the box, Howard called and went to claim it but didn’t and, when the ball broke loose, Ejupi headed in from close range.

They extended their lead in the 71st minute when Kitching’s speculative long-range effort flew over Howard, came back off the bar and Emily Scarr was first to the loose ball to jab it into the empty net.

Four minutes later Sunderland were awarded a penalty when McLean tripped Kitching just inside the box and Scarr converted from the spot.

Michelle Agyemang, on as a sub after being out through injury, unleashed a 25-yard effort in the 89th minute with some power that hit a defender on the head and went wide.

Watford: Howard; Lafayette, McLean, Meiwald; Bennett (Leon 28), Haines, Wilson, Georgiou, Head (Fyfe 64); Johns, Baptiste (Agyemang 72). Subs not used: Harris, Fleming, Davison, Rossiter, Chandler, Palisch.