Watford signed off the year in the best way possible by producing another memorable performance to claim a second consecutive victory against a top-two club after thumping Cardiff City 4-1 at Vicarage Road.

A superb opening to the game from the hosts should have been rewarded in the seventh minute when they were rightly awarded a penalty – their first at home in more than two years - but Danny Graham’s spot-kick was saved.

Peter Whittingham then put Cardiff in front, but Watford deservedly levelled when Graham made up for his earlier miss by putting away a cross from the excellent Will Buckley.

The hosts should have been awarded a second spot-kick before the break when Marvin Sordell was taken out by Darcy Blake and they deserved to be leading at the interval.

Watford had been impressive in the opening period but they took it on another level after the break, taking command of the game in the space of ten minutes.

First Graham set up Sordell to score his first goal in ten outings and it soon became 3-1 when skipper John Eustace thumped home a Don Cowie corner at the near post.

And the icing on the cake was applied seven minutes from time when Graham got back on track from 12 yards by converting the second spot-kick award of the game after Buckley was again tripped in the 18-yard box.

It was a terrific display by the Hornets, underlining the qualities they had shown in their 3-1 victory over leaders Queens Park Rangers last time out, and they can go into the new year in fantastic heart after a third successive victory and fifth game unbeaten lifted them back up to eighth in the table.

Although it was 18 days since the Hornets last played, there was no surprise that Malky Mackay made just the one enforced change to the team that won at Loftus Road, with Sordell returning for the injured Stephen McGinn.

But perhaps the stand-out feature of the home side’s line-up was the bench. Troy Deeney was ruled out with an ankle knock sustained in training, while Lee Hodson was ill, so in came Adam Thompson, Matt Whichelow and Josh Walker, recalled from his loan at Stevenage, to join Gavin Massey and Dale Bennett, taking the average age of the substitutes to a fraction under 20.

Watford made their trademark fast start and David Marshall was forced into the first save of the match after 25 seconds, holding a rising left-footed drive from Buckley, who had cut in off the right flank after receiving a quick Lloyd Doyley throw.

The Hornets’ next attempt came two minutes later when Jordon Mutch did well to win the ball in midfield before striking a rising 20-yard right-footed effort that wasn’t too far over. And two attempts in three minutes soon became three in four when Graham dug out a fine cross from tight to the right by-line, but Mutch, who was in space, wasn’t quite able to get over his header and it went over.

The visitors’ goal was being bombarded in the opening stages, with Eustace having a mis-hit shot blocked and a cross from Buckley cleared before the Hornets should have taken a seventh-minute lead.

Again Buckley was the instigator, beating Lee Naylor on the right before being clearly hauled down in the area and, after taking his time, referee Mark Haywood duly pointed to the spot to give the Hornets their first penalty at Vicarage Road in just over two years. Although Graham struck the spot-kick well, it was at a nice height for Marshall, who guessed the correct way and dived to his right to save.

It looked to be a costly miss as, seven minutes later, the visitors, having gained some respite from the previously incessant pressure, took the lead with their first attempt of note.

Craig Bellamy had not travelled, but his replacement on the left, Chris Burke, received the ball and worked it into the area where Whittingham’s run had not been tracked and he struck a crisp left-footed effort across Scott Loach to put the Bluebirds a goal to the good.

But Cardiff’s lead was to last only eight minutes.

Buckley had been right at it from the off and in the 23rd minute he cut through the Cardiff rearguard, again leaving the hapless Naylor trailing in his wake, before crossing to the far post where the outstretched left leg of Graham hooked the ball into the roof of the net via the arm of Marshall to make it 1-1 and 13 for the season for the striker in all competitions.

There was further encouragement for Watford after 31 minutes when Naylor picked up a yellow card for a foul on Buckley and the visiting left-back’s ignominy was completed four minutes later when he was hauled off by boss Dave Jones and replaced by Adam Matthews.

By that point though, Andrew Taylor had also seen yellow for a clear foul on Burke and tempers again threatened to boil over when Mutch and Whittingham were involved in a confrontation.

Another opening came Watford’s way six minutes before the break when, following a Cowie corner from the right, a leaning back Adrian Mariappa lifted the ball over the target from close range, although the defender suggested he was being pulled back at the time.

Next Sordell hit an effort from longer range straight at Marshall following a quick Eustace throw, but soon after the hosts might have been awarded a second penalty when Sordell appeared to be taken down by Blake as he looked to go past the centre-half.

Sordell had another opening as the first half entered the first of two minutes of stoppage time, forcing Marshall to go to ground to save after the ball had broken to him following Mutch’s attempt to drive through the defence.

Watford were soon back on the front foot after the restart, with Sordell hitting a tame angled effort from the left side of the area at Marshall after latching on to Cowie’s pass.

However, Loach then had to be watchful as an angled 20-yard right-footed drive from Burke flashed not too far wide of his far post before Mutch curled a shot wide at the other end after some of the momentum from a counter-attack was lost.

The game then went through a quiet spell, with Cardiff shading the exchanges in increasingly foggy conditions, before it superbly sparked back to life for the hosts in the 57th minute.

Graham played the ball into Sordell in a central position in the area and, after getting it out of his feet and working a bit of space for himself, he appeared to mis-hit a left-footed shot, but it still had enough about it to beat the static Marshall and go in off the inside of his left-hand post to put the Hornets deservedly 2-1 up.

That was Watford’s 40th league goal of the season – and number 41 followed in the 64th minute.

After a Sordell shot had been deflected behind for the Hornets’ fourth corner of the match, Cowie drifted the ball in to the near post and Eustace stole in to thump a header inside Marshall’s right-hand upright and make it 3-1.

This put Watford in complete command, with the Bluebirds seemingly having little idea about how to get back into the contest.

Gavin Rae came on for Burke after 73 minutes and three minutes later Jason Koumas entered the fray at the expense of Stephen McPhail, but not before Cardiff had – quite literally – almost been handed an undeserved route back into the game when Loach had a long-distance effort comfortably covered as he stood on his line, only to see it squirm out of his gloves and up narrowly over his own crossbar.

But any doubt about the outcome was put to bed with seven minutes remaining when Watford were awarded their second penalty of the match.

Buckley capitalised on a defensive mistake and, as he closed in on goal, he was clearly tripped by Blake, albeit accidentally after the centre-back at slipped.

There was never any doubt about who was going to take it and this time Graham made no mistake, comfortably sending Marshall the wrong way to make it 4-1 and score his 14th of the campaign – the same as he managed in the whole of last season.

Mackay made a trio of changes in injury-time, with Massey, Ross Jenkins and Walker coming on for Graham, Buckley and Mutch respectively, who were all afforded a richly deserved ovation, particularly Buckley.

There was still time for Massey to have a late effort blocked before some jubilant scenes in the fog at the final whistle.

Watford: Loach; Doyley, Mariappa, M Taylor, A Taylor; Eustace; Buckley (Jenkins 90), Mutch (Walker 90), Cowie; Sordell, Graham (Massey 90). Not used: Gilmartin, Bennett, Whichelow and Thompson.

Cardiff City: Marshall; McNaughton, Hudson, Blake, Naylor (Matthews 35); Whittingham, Olofinjana, McPhail (Koumas 76), Burke (Rae 73); Chopra, Keogh. Not used: Gyepes, Quinn, Heaton and Wildig.

Bookings: Naylor for a foul on Buckley after 31 mins; A Taylor for a foul on Burke after 34 mins.

Attendance: 14,560.

Referee: Mark Haywood.