Pushed out of the top six for the first time in over six months, Derby County are clinging to a play-off spot only on goal difference after 10-man Watford came from behind to stretch Derby’s winless run to seven matches.
Steve McClaren’s side led the Championship at the beginning of March and have been in a play-off spot or better since September, but three points from their last seven matches has left their Premier League ambitions in danger of coming to nothing.
Watford, who had defender Marco Motta sent off when he gave away a penalty in first-half stoppage time, looked to face a huge task when Tom Ince put Derby ahead early in the second half but Odion Ighalo equalised with 15 minutes left.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s side would have gone top with a win, but will be content with third place, a point outside the top two.
Derby began with little indication that their wobble was playing on their nerves. They started on the front foot and were close to taking the lead twice inside a minute within the first quarter of an hour.
But Watford have acquired impressive resilience under Jokanovic and recovered strongly. A wave of Watford attacks ended with Matej Vydra putting them in front after 23 minutes, thanks to some poor defending of their right flank by Derby in which right back Cyrus Christie was culpable twice, first losing the ball to Vydra and then missing a chance to clear under pressure from Ighalo, the ball ultimately running loose for the Czech-born forward to stab home his 13th goal of the campaign.
Derby suffered a further setback within minutes when George Thorne, their injury-troubled midfielder, had to abort his latest comeback. They looked decidedly shaky for a few minutes, although Will Hughes flashed a good effort narrowly wide.
But the penalty along with Motta’s red card gave them a lifeline just as the opening half was drawing to a close. Jeff Hendrick, who had replaced Thorne, sent Tom Ince on a forward run and he in turn supplied Johnny Russell, who was bearing down on Heurelho Gomes when Motta brought him down from behind.
There was a question mark over whether he was the last man but it was a scoring opportunity, so referee Friend probably made the right decision in sending Motta off. The pressure was on Bent not to waste Derby’s chance, but his experience served him well and his penalty was struck emphatically home.
McClaren took off Christie and sent on Jesse Lingard at the start of the second half, giving his side licence to attack. Jokanovic countered by replacing goalscorer Vydra with midfielder Daniel Tozser but it took only 12 minutes of the second half for Derby to claim their second goal.
Lingard’s pace immediately gave Watford a lot more to worry about, but it was Ince, skipping past two defenders, that put the home side in front, finishing his run by firing left-footed past Gomes into the opposite corner. Watford were not done, however, and inadequate defending again cost Derby where Ighalo got in behind Ryan Shotton to convert Adlene Guedioura’s pass.
Derby County (4-3-3): Grant; Christie (Lingard 45); Keogh, Shotton, Forsyth; Hughes, Thorne (Hendrick 29); Bryson (Martin 76); Ince, Bent, Russell. Substitutes not used Roos (gk), Ward, Albentosa, Warnock.
Watford (4-3-1-2): Gomes; Motta, Cathcart, Angella, Hoban; Guedioura, Watson, Layun (Anya 63); Ighalo (Connolly 78); Vydra (Tozser 45); Deeney. Substitutes not used Bond (gk), Munari, Doyley, Pudil.
Referee K Friend (Leicestershire)Reuse content