There was no late Christmas cheer at Vicarage Road this afternoon as Watford’s defensive failings reared their ugly heads yet again to give Bristol City a 4-2 victory.

The Hornets were up against it from the very first minute when Nicky Maynard fired the Robins in front, and the striker went on to double his side’s advantage before half-time.

Grzegorz Rasiak then gave Watford hope after the restart, before Marvin Elliott quickly restored the visitors’ two-goal advantage, only to then half it again with an own goal.

Brendan Rodgers’ men did push on in search of the equaliser, but it was the Robins who had the last laugh when Dele Adebola scored a late fourth.

Rodgers made three changes to the side that lost 1-0 at Derby County on Saturday. Skipper Jay DeMerit and Mat Sadler were both fit to be included in the backline at the expense of Lloyd Doyley and Ross Jenkins, but the main talking point was the inclusion of Rasiak for the first time under the manager due to the absence of the injured Tamas Priskin.

But it was City who went immediately on the front foot, catching the home side cold after just 23 seconds. Following a throw on the right, Leigh Bromby’s clearing header from the centre of the area reached Tommy Smith, who tried a little flick inside to a team-mate. However, Ivan Sproule intercepted and lifted the ball back into the area where Maynard got first run on DeMerit and calmly steered a right-footed shot across and beyond Scott Loach to make it 1-0 to the Robins.

Rocked by that early setback, the Hornets struggled to settle down and retain possession, but they did muster their first attempt in the eighth minute when Adrian Mariappa’s cross from the right was cleared to the edge of the area where Smith managed to work a shooting opportunity which he fired wide of Adriano Basso’s left-hand post.

Watford then had a promising opportunity when they broke on three-on-three, but Jobi McAnuff’s slide pass to Rasiak in the area was too strong to allow him to get a strike on goal and, instead, he tried to pick out Smith from tight to the left by-line, but the ball was cleared.

By the midway point of the opening period, the majority of the game was being played in the City half, but the Hornets were still struggling to create chances. And in the 26th minute they could have been undone when Mariappa fouled Maynard on the left edge of the Hornets box, but Lee Johnson’s right-footed free-kick was deflected over the watchful Loach’s bar.

Back came Watford, with McAnuff and Smith combining to good effect down the right to put the latter into space. Although his cross failed to pick out a team-mate, the ball was cleared to the edge of the box where Lee Williamson struck a rasping right-footed shot narrowly over the diving Basso’s bar.

But in the 29th minute the Hornets found themselves with a mountain to climb. Not for the first time in the half Sproule got the better of an ineffectual challenge from Sadler and fired in a cross-shot which Loach did well to parry, but diverted it back into the heart of the area where Maynard was able to turn and fire in his second of the first-half to make it 2-0.

Sproule was at it again soon after, this time leading a counter-attack down the centre of the pitch, before hitting a rising right-footed drive over the top. Maynard then had the ball in the net for a third time, but the flag was already well up for offside, before he went in on Loach as he sought to capitalise on more sloppy play from the home side.

There were more alarm bells ringing in an extremely shaky Hornets defence in the 39th minute when Sproule again beat Sadler and sent in a low cross, which Bromby miscontrolled, but DeMerit was able to get across and rescue the situation just before Stern John could pull the trigger.

But two minutes before the break Watford nearly got a much-needed foothold in the game. Williamson clipped in a corner from the right and DeMerit, coming in behind Rasiak, made good contact with a header, but sent it just the wrong side of Basso’s right-hand upright.

The Hornets kept the pressure on as the first-half drew to a close and in the first and only minute of injury-time, they managed to work another opening.

Williamson took a corner on the left and pulled it back to the edge of the area where Harley rather mis-hit an attempted volley to Rasiak on the right side of the area with his back to goal. The striker initially looked like he would try an overhead kick, then seemed to be squeezed out as he tried to get between two defenders, but in the end did well to hook a left-footed volley goalwards which Basso plucked out of the air as he leapt to his left.

However, it wasn’t enough to stop Watford from going into the break right up against it 2-0 down.

Action was needed at the break and Rodgers took it by making a double change. Neither Sadler and John-Joe O’Toole could have any real complaints at being taken off and they were replaced by Ross Jenkins and league debutant Lewis Young. The latter went to the left side of midfield, which meant Jon Harley moved to left-back.

The Hornets were straight on the front foot and had an opportunity after 90 seconds of the second half when an elaborate free-kick routine ended with Mariappa volleying over the top.

But four minutes into the half Watford were back in it.

McAnuff was the architect with searing break down the right which ended with a low cross that broke off a defender, and the ball fell invitingly for Rasiak to calmly tuck away his third Hornets goal to make it 2-1.

Watford’s joy was to be shortlived though, as three minutes later Elliott picked up the ball around 25 yards out and hit a hard shot, but a slight deflection off Williamson was enough to wrong-foot Loach to make it 3-1, although the keeper should still have kept it out.

The Watford keeper was called into action again soon after, diving to his right to hold onto a drive from Sproule, who had opened up a shooting opportunity after checking inside Harley in the area.

Before that chance, Louis Carey had become the first player to be booked for a foul on Smith and he was joined by defensive colleague Liam Fontaine on the hour for trying to illegally cut short a Smith break down the right.

Rodgers made his third and final change after 64 minutes, bringing on Will Hoskins for Harley – a decision that met with boos from some quarters.

But the substitute was immediately into the play, setting up the move that led to Smith breaking down the right and sending over a cross that Elliott met superbly with a diving header, only to divert it across Basso and into the far corner to cut the deficit to 3-2 and cancel out the goal he scored 13 minutes previously.

By this stage, Watford had switched to a 3-4-3 formation, but there was only one thing on their minds – attacking.

Their next chance came with 20 minutes remaining when Jenkins sent a lovely ball out to Smith on the right and he got to the by-line and stood up a cross, which just cleared Hoskins and Basso claimed.

Gary Johnson made his first change after 74 minutes, replacing John with Adebola, and then Cole Skuse came on for Sproule.

Adebola’s first involvement was to be booked for a foul on Mariappa after 80 minutes, but soon after Maynard played the ball to his left where Michael McIndoe lined up an angled drive, which he sent across Loach and wide of the far post.

Jenkins then almost gifted the same player a fourth when, having cut out Adebola’s low centre from the right, he was caught in possession on the edge of his own area, but McIndoe fired over.

It was then Watford’s turn to almost equalise when Mariappa helped Bromby’s long throw from the right into the path of Rasiak, he hooked into the middle of the area but Hoskins, coming away from goal, was unable to direct his effort on target.

However, Maynard might then have snatched his hat-trick when a long free-kick was helped into the path of the two-goal striker by Skuse, but he could only toe-poke the ball straight at Loach.

But Adebola made sure the points were going back down the M4 when he scored City’s fourth two minutes into injury-time.

City retained possession from a corner and the ball was worked to Lee Johnson on the right and he stood up a lovely cross to the far post where the big substitute had an easy chance to head home and make it 4-2.

Lee Trundle came on for Elliott for the last minutes, which the Robins saw out to claim their first win in nine.

Watford: Loach; Mariappa, DeMerit, Bromby, Sadler (Young, 46); McAnuff, Williamson, O’Toole (Jenkins, 46), Harley (Hoskins, 64); Smith, Rasiak. Not used: Doyley and Lee.

Bristol City: Basso; Orr, Carey, Fontaine, Wilson; Sproule (Skuse, 78), Johnson, Elliott (Trundle, 90), McIndoe; Maynard, John (Adebola, 74). Not used: Webster and Henderson.

Bookings: Carey for a foul on Rasiak after 53 mins; Fontaine for a foul on Smith after 60 mins; Adebola for a foul on Mariappa after 80 mins.

Attendance: 15,527.

Referee: Fred Graham.