Cardiff City edged nearer to automatic promotion last night while Watford slipped slightly further away, as the two sides played out a tight tense draw. There were few chances for either side, but Cardiff, who did not need to win, will certainly be happier than Watford, who probably did.
Malky Mackay was content for his side to play on the break, and while Joe Mason might have done better when through on goal early in the first half, his Cardiff team are five points clear of Hull City at the top with a game in hand.
Cardiff host Barnsley on Tuesday night and victory should give them enough of a margin at the top to ensure top-flight football next season for the first time in 51 years. Their fans certainly celebrated at the end as if they had left with what they came for.
With the visitors happy to keep their shape, the onus was on Watford to pick them apart but, barring two good chances for Troy Deeney either side of half-time, they failed to do so. Anyone hoping that the agreeable weather might bring out good football would have been disappointed. There were no more than three real chances all afternoon. Cardiff were happy to let Watford take the game to them but the hosts lacked the confidence and fluency to do so.
For most of the afternoon, this was a display of the qualities that have taken Cardiff to the top of the Championship. They were disciplined, focused and hard-working, swiftly shutting down Watford's more gifted and dangerous players. Mackay made one change from the side which beat Peterborough on Saturday and they certainly played like an effective, well-balanced unit.
"I'm very pleased with the intelligence of my team's performance," the Cardiff manager said. "We came here and got a clean sheet against the highest scorers in the League, with Mateij Vydra and Troy Deeney up front. But we kept them very quiet and it was our 16th clean sheet of the season. It was a really dogged, intelligent second half in how we stopped them, I'm very proud of my group."
Leon Barnett, a recent loan arrival from Norwich City, added experience and nous to the back four while the midfield trio of Aron Gunnarsson, Kim Bo-Kyung and Jordon Mutch were stronger and sharper than Watford's less experienced selection. And David Marshall, in goal, provided the game's single moment of quality, diving down to his right to turn round the post Deeney's header from Joel Ekstrand's cross early in the first half.
"He's the best keeper in this division by a mile," Mackay said of Marshall. "I'd be very surprised if he was not in the Championship team of the year."
That was the only difficult save Marshall had to make, although Deeney had another good chance just before half-time, volleying over when Vydra headed down Matthew Briggs's cross from the left. Aside from those openings, Watford were limited to shots from distance and crosses from the wing-backs which Cardiff easily dealt with. Vydra, Championship Player of the Year, came off after an hour for Fernando Forestieri, who did slightly improve Watford.
Gianfranco Zola would not admit disappointment even though the gap between his team and Hull was back to three points despite beating Steve Bruce's side on Tuesday.
"I don't consider it two points dropped, is a good point against the team top of league," Watford's manager insisted. "We tried everything we could to win the game, but the reason why we didn't win is that they are a tough, tough team to beat."
Watford (3-5-2): Almunia; Doyley, Ekstrand, Cassetti; Anya, Abdi, Chalobah, Battocchio (Hogg, 51), Briggs; Deeney, Vydra (Forestieri, 60).
Cardiff City (4-5-1): Marshall; Connolly (McNaughton, 10), Barnett, Turner, Taylor; Bellamy, Kim, Gunnarsson, Mutch, Conway (Smith, 69); Mason (Gestede, 56).
Referee Mark Halsey.