Watford slipped to their third straight league defeat after losing 1-0 at home to Brighton and Hove Albion in a hard-fought clash at Vicarage Road tonight.

The Hornets have cause to feel they deserved at least a point from the match but while they created numerous opportunities, they didn’t create anything particularly clear-cut. Full debutant Fernando Forestieri went closest when he hit the bar and, crucially, the hosts also had two strong penalty appeals turned down.

By the same token though, the Seagulls could have won by a wider margin had they had their finishing boots on because they opened up their opponents at the back on several occasions, with former Hornets wide man Will Buckley usually the cause of the danger as he sought to make the most of mistakes.

As it was, the game was settled four minutes after the break when Craig Mackail-Smith smashed home the one spot kick that was awarded after being fouled by Daniel Pudil.

Gianfranco Zola made two changes to the side that lost 2-1 at Bolton Wanderers on Saturday. Marco Cassetti and Forestieri both made their full debuts, with, perhaps surprisingly, Lloyd Doyley dropping to the bench, while Sean Murray was injured.

The Hornets were quickly out of the blocks and almost created a chance straight from the kick-off. Jonathan Hogg swept the ball out to Forestieri on the left, he found Matej Vydra who in turn picked out Chris Iwelumo in a central position on the edge of the area. The Hornets skipper was briefly in space but in switching feet he gave the Seagulls defence the chance to block his shot.

The hosts continued to push forward with purpose, with a dangerous Pudil cross from the left almost picking out the head of Iwelumo. The big striker then turned creator, chesting the ball back to Forestieri, who connected superbly with a right-footed half-volley that deflected off Adam El-Abd and narrowly wide of the far post, with former Hornets on-loan keeper Tomasz Kuszczak completely stranded as he dived in the opposite direction.

Watford did have the ball in the back of the net in the eighth minute but Vydra knew he was offside when a Pudil shot broke to him after Mark Yeates’ free-kick from 25 yards out had cannoned back off the wall.

Brighton had barely been able to get out of their half in the ten minutes but a stray cross-field header from Nyron Nosworthy gave Buckley an opportunity to run at a stretched Hornets rearguard and Neuton could have few complaints at the yellow card he received after felling the Hornets old boy.

The hosts were soon back on the front foot though, with Yeates breaking away from a midfield tussle before dragging a shot not too far wide of the target. But the Seagulls bench were up as one in the 18th minute when Cassetti caught Liam Bridcutt with a late challenge and a yellow card was again the predictable outcome.

Following that yellow card, Buckley almost immediately switched flanks so he was up against the Italian, but the openings still kept coming Watford’s way, with Iwelumo and Forestieri combining to tee up Almen Abdi, who fired wide from the edge of the area.

The Seagulls finally had their first attempt in the 24th minute when an under-pressure Mackail-Smith prodded wide of the near post after Buckley had done well on the left to create a crossing opportunity.

Having been on the end of a yellow card challenge himself, Bridcutt levelled up that personal score when he was booked for a foul on Forestieri. However, the Hornets were almost caught out when Buckley, who had the beating of Cassetti, again crossed from the left. Although the ball was just too far ahead of Mackail-Smith, it ran for the unmarked Dean Hammond but Manuel Almunia reacted smartly to the danger and made a good blocking save.

Hammond wasted another good opening in the 39th minute, hitting a shot on the turn over after Cassetti, amongst others, was caught appealing for a throw-in that never came after Buckley and Wayne Bridge had combined down the left.

Buckley was again the creator a minute later, lifting a perfectly weighted clipped pass into the path of Mackail-Smith, but Neuton did just enough to prevent the Watford-born striker gathering the ball cleanly and the ball broke off his body and ran wide.

But still the Hornets kept getting opened up down their right-hand side as Buckley yet again ran free before laying a low centre back to Gary Dicker, but his rather tame effort was comfortably gathered by Almunia.

Watford though, managed to survive that spell and in first-half injury-time Neuton advanced purposefully forward before finding Yeates, who took the ball on before sending a right-footed strike from distance swerving off target.

Given that he was being given a hard time by Buckley and was on a yellow card, it was not a great surprise to see Doyley replace Cassetti at the start of the second half. Within four minutes of the restart, the hosts were behind.

There were few complaints from the Hornets when Pudil was adjudged to have fouled Mackail-Smith in the area and the in-form Seagulls striker made no mistake from 12 yards, smashing the ball down the centre of the goal to score his sixth in four games.

The visitors had another opening soon after when Gordon Greer headed a corner over the top but Watford were soon able to regroup and began to apply themselves as an attacking presence again.

That nearly resulted in the equaliser in the 58th minute when Pudil did well to keep the ball in close to the left by-line and evade a challenge before laying it back to Forestieri, who switched the ball on to his right foot, opening his body out and hitting a curling shot that clipped the bar before going over.

Gus Poyet made his first change on the hour, bringing on Ashley Barnes for the man who had replaced him in the starting line-up, Andrea Orlandi. But as the Hornets continued to press there were fortunate not to concede a second in three minutes later when Neuton was caught in possession and the ball was slipped through to Mackail-Smith, but he missed the target with a powerful effort from the left side of the area.

Forestieri though, had posed Watford’s main attacking threat since the restart and he was at it again in the 64th minute, showing more neat footwork in and around the edge of the area before firing wide of the near post.

No sooner had that chance been created though, than the Hornets really should have been two down.

Again they were caught out at the back as Buckley led the charge from the right, picking out the unmarked Hammond in the middle but he shot straight at Almunia.

Pudil tested Kuszczak with a well-struck effort from wide on the left before a sequence of crosses in the Brighton box ended with Greer standing his ground to prevent Abdi getting a clean header on a cross from his Czech team-mate.

On-loan Chelsea rising star Nathaniel Chalobah became the latest recruit to be given his Hornets debut as a 74th-minute replacement for Forestieri and then Mackail-Smith made way for Stephen Dobbie.

Chalobah was soon involved, pinging a neat ball to a team-mate, before his cross from the right stood up for Pudil, who was coming in at the back post, but he was unable to keep his header down.

Dobbie’s first meaningful involvement was to pick up a needless yellow card following a tangle with Neuton and then a full-hearted performance from Iwelumo was ended when he was replaced by Steve Beleck.

Hogg thought he should have had a penalty with ten minutes remaining after his attempted give and go was cut short and then Chalobah was taken out as he came back out towards the edge of the area.

Both were decent shouts but on neither occasion was referee Darren Drysdale swayed. However, he was soon the centre of attention again, first booking Nosworthy for a foul on Buckley and then dishing out the same punishment to Pudil and Barnes after the two had clashed angrily in the Hornets area following an over-the-top challenge by the substitute.

Despite having an additional four minutes of time to try and find an equaliser, the best they could muster was when a cross was half-cleared to Pudil, but he struck a dipping volley over.

Watford: Almunia; Cassetti (Doyley 46), Nosworthy, Neuton, Pudil; Hogg, Abdi, Yeates; Forestieri (Chalobah 74), Iwelumo (Beleck 79), Vydra. Not used: Forsyth, Smith, Bond and Hoban.

Brighton & Hove Albion: Kuszczak; Bruno (Calderon 90), Greer, El-Abd, Bridge; Bridcutt, Orlandi (Barnes 60); Buckley, Dicker, Hammond; Mackail-Smith (Dobbie 75). Not used: Dunk, Ankergren, Harley, Lopez.

Bookings: Neuton for a foul on Buckley after 11 mins; Cassetti for a foul on Bridcutt after 18 mins; Bridcutt for a foul on Forestieri after 25 mins; Dobbie for a foul on Neuton after 79 mins; Nosworthy for a foul on Buckley after 83 mins; Pudil for exchange with Barnes after 85 mins; Barnes for exchange with Pudil after 85 mins.

Attendance: 11,894.

Referee: Darren Drysdale.