City suffered a frustrating afternoon at Vicarage Road as Watford’s talented loanees inspired the Hornets to only their third home win of the season.
Udinese duo Almen Abdi and Fernando Forestieri inflicted the damage for the home side – Abdi striking in the 14th minute to open the scoring and the impressive Forestieri showing predatory instincts in the 69th to confirm the Foxes’ second successive league defeat.
David Nugent produced a well-taken response 18 minutes from the end to give the visitors hope, but that hope was effectively extinguished when Zak Whitbread was sent off for a second caution with six minutes to go.
The defeat sees City drop to fourth in the npower Championship table, three points off the automatic promotion places ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Bolton Wanderers.
Seven days on from his side’s first home defeat of the season, Nigel Pearson made three changes from the side that started against Crystal Palace, Liam Moore replacing the suspended Ritchie De Laet at right-back and Matty James brought into a 4-3-3 formation with Ben Marshall.
Making the most of a squad strengthened by several loanees this season, Watford boss Gianfranco Zola named a full quota or five loan players in his starting eleven, three of them from Italian club Udinese, and a further four on the bench.
Beaten in three of their last four games, the hosts started like a side with considerably more confidence than many would have predicted. Bright in their movement, smart in possession and watchful in defence, they looked a well-balanced side and, in the lively Forestieri, carried a constant attacking threat.
Fed by the energy of Abdi charging forward from midfield, Troy Deeney fired the first warning shot past Kasper Schmeichel’s goal on 11 minutes.
Three later, Forestieri made better use of Abdi’s adventure, slicing City’s defences open with a clever reverse pass that his fellow Udinese loanee confidently dispatched on the run.
Despite matching Watford up with three men in the middle, City were struggling to maintain possession and suffocate the work of Forestieri, who continued to drop deep to threaten them – firing in one shot from range on 20 minutes that an unsighted Schmeichel did well to repel.
At the halfway stage in the first period, something stirred in Pearson’s men and they began to piece together their best advances, going close either side of the half-hour.
Paul Konchesky, Andy King and Anthony Knockaert combined to free Marshall in the left side of the box, but his stabbed effort was well held by Manuel Almunia.
Moments later, the former Arsenal stopper was well beaten as skipper Wes Morgan powered onto a Knockaert corner, but Jonathan Hogg was well-placed to clear off the line.
By now it was the visitors that looked the more likely to add to the scoring – David Nugent working Almunia with a low drive before the break and Knockaert magnificently denied from close range by Tommie Hoban’s block.
A clash of heads between Moore and Morgan brought about a lengthy stoppage that interrupted the start of the second half, as Pearson brought the pace of Lloyd Dyer into the game.
And how the speedy winger would have loved to exchange roles with Nugent just before the hour-mark, as the City striker sprinted clear onto Dyer’s hooked ball over the top. While Nugent had the pace to get there before going down in the box under pressure from Hoban, Dyer’s explosive speed would have made it a no-contest. Referee Andy D’Urso was unsympathetic to Nugent’s cause.
As City tried to increase the pressure, the hosts retreated, content to let the Foxes have the ball but threatening on the counter-attack. On 69 minutes they doubled the lead.
Schmeichel perhaps deserved some more luck as he first punched clear a dangerous cross from Deeney, and then brilliantly clawed out Daniel Pudil’s fierce drive. But Forestieri was perfectly placed to pick up the pieces and stab home the rebound.
It looked a match-winning goal, but the Foxes refused to throw the towel in and three minutes later they gave themselves hope.
With only one goal in six games prior to this one, Nugent was due to find the net and did so with authority – pulling down Konchesky’s left-wing cross at the far post and thumping it across Almunia.
The Foxes typically threw caution to the wind, leaving themselves open to counter-stings from the Hornets and Schmeichel had to react well to save a dipping drive from Hogg 15 minutes from time.
But when Whitbread, cautioned in the first half for a pull on Deeney, received his second booking for bringing down substitute Matej Vydra, even with seven minutes of added time, the game was up.
Watford: (3-5-2): Almunia; Doyley, Hall (Anya 90), Hoban; Cassetti, Hogg, Chalobah, Abdi (Smith 86), Pudil; Deeney, Forestieri (Vydra 80).
Unused subs: Bond, Yeates, Geijo, Ekstrand.
Goals: Abdi 14, Forestieri 69
City (4-4-3): Schmeichel; Moore, Morgan (c), Whitbread, Konchesky; King, Drinkwater (Dyer 46), James; Knockaert (Waghorn 64), Nugent, Marshall (Futacs 64).
Unused subs: Danns, Logan, Gallagher, Schlupp.
Goals: Nugent 72
Booked: Drinkwater, Whitbread
Sent off: Whitbread 84
Attendance: 12,954 (2,058 away)
Referee: Andy D’Urso (Essex)