IT WAS quite an afternoon in Yorkshire, a match that swung both ways, but in the end Watford had to settle for a respectable point in an exhilarating afternoon at Elland Road.
The Hornets led by Troy Deeney and Cristian Battocchio goals at the break, but were pegged back in the second half as strikes from Danny Pugh, Matt Smith and Ross McCormack appeared to have handed Leeds all three points.
But Deeney dispatched a crucial late leveller for Gianfranco Zola’s side, who may well have won had it not been for a decisive last-ditch block denying Joel Ekstrand, clean through on goal, in stoppage time.
There were two changes to the starting XI which secured a point at Burnley in midweek – Ikechi Anya returning from injury and replacing Sean Murray on the left side of midfield, and Daniel Pudil coming in for Marco Cassetti at left-back, as the Hornets stuck with the 4-1-4-1 formation adopted at Turf Moor.
For the hosts, Sam Byram came into a three-man defence in place of Tom Lees, the only change from a Leeds side which defeated Wigan Athletic 2-0 on Wednesday.
It was Leeds who had the first attempt on goal, Matt Smith heading goalwards having met a McCormack cross inside three minutes, but finding himself denied by Watford goalkeeper Jonathan Bond.
Marius Zaliukas was the next Leeds man to meet a McCormack delivery into the box, this time from a free-kick, but the defender’s headed effort flew over the bar.
It was a frantic opening in Yorkshire, backed by boisterous support from both sets of supporters, and when Battocchio found space down the right, the Italian midfielder’s cross was nodded wide by Arsenal loanee Hector Bellerin.
Rodolph Austin broke clear of the Hornets’ backline on eight minutes but Bond got down well to deny the Whites’ skipper, and Luke Murphy spooned the rebound high of the target.
Paddy Kenny produced a good save to thwart Anya moments later, but the Hornets did score that all-important opening goal with 12 minutes played, and it came from a speedy breakaway move up-field.
Lewis McGugan was the man who advanced into the penalty area before seeing a left-footed shot blocked, but the ball fell kindly to Deeney, who powered home his eighth of the season low to Kenny’s left.
Anya’s pace down Watford’s left was causing United problems, and the Scotland international had a sight of goal 24 minutes in but dragged a low shot only marginally wide of the far post.
Bond came off his line to great effect two minutes later, collecting a dangerous loose ball as McCormack raced towards goal hoping to meet Austin’s through pass. Nyron Nosworthy then got the slightest of touches to turn Byram’s teasing cross behind with an expectant Smith lurking behind.
Smith raced onto another McCormack through ball with 38 minutes played, but Bond tipped the striker’s close-range shot over excellently – neither player realising the former Oldham man had been ruled offside.
Danny Pugh went into referee Trevor Kettle’s book for an alleged dive, the vocal Leeds support feeling Nosworthy’s outstretched leg warranted a penalty for the home side, but they were soon to find themselves two goals behind.
Bellerin showed fantastic pace to charge what must have been the best part of 60 yards up-field following a Leeds free-kick, before feeding Battocchio, who took a few delicate touches inside the box and squeezed the ball expertly into the bottom right corner. A fine counter-attacking goal right on half-time, reminiscent of so many scored on the road last season.
Much like the first half, Brian McDermott’s men started the second period strongly – Bond tipping behind a Smith header from Byram’s cross in the opening stages.
The deficit was halved with 50 minutes on the clock however, Pugh slotting into the far corner from the tightest of angles, having shrugged off Nosworthy on the left side of Watford’s box.
It had been a rip-roaring start from the Yorkshire side, and they only had to wait a further six minutes for their equaliser – Smith heading home a McCormack cross after Peltier had dispossessed Anya halfway up the pitch.
It might have been more – Austin got behind the Watford back-four and Bond – somehow – made himself big to deny the Leeds captain with a stunning point-blank double save. Alex Mowatt’s deflected effort then clattered the bar with an hour played, and at the other end McGugan fired in a trademark curler from outside the area but Kenny clawed it over.
Murray entered the fray on 66 minutes, replacing McGugan in the afternoon’s first substitution, and then Cassetti came on for Davide Faraoni with 17 minutes to go.
There was a let off for the ‘Orns on 77 minutes, Smith heading home at the back post but the flag had already been raised for offside, but just moments later McCormack got beyond Nosworthy to hand the hosts their first lead of the game, finishing from close-range having been initially denied by Bond.
Watford responded and Battocchio drew a near-post save from Kenny, then Murray’s cross-shot from wide left swung just the wrong side of the far side of goal.
Just when things appeared to be slipping away from the Golden Boys, George Thorne tried his luck with a venomous long-range shot and when Kenny parried, Deeney pounced to dispatch his second of the afternoon and level affairs once more.
With one minute remaining Fitz Hall was introduced in place of Battocchio as Watford looked to run down the clock, but there was so nearly a dramatic last-gasp winner for the Hornets – Ekstrand finding himself clean through on goal with just Kenny to beat after Deeney’s squared ball, but Zaliukas recovered to make a match-saving block in the last meaningful act of an invigorating afternoon.
WHITES: Kenny (GK); Peltier, Zaliukas, Pearce; Byram, Murphy, Mowatt, Pugh, Austin (c); McCormack, Smith.
Subs not used: Cairns (GK), Brown, Tonge, Varney, Drury, Poleon, Warnock.
Yellow Cards: Pugh (44)
Goals: Pugh (50), Smith (56), McCormack (78)
HORNETS: Bond (GK); Faraoni (Cassetti, 73), Nosworthy, Ekstrand, Pudil; Thorne; Bellerin, Battocchio (Hall, 90), McGugan (Murray, 67), Anya; Deeney (c).
Subs not used: Woods (GK), Iriney, Fabbrini, Forestieri.
Yellow Cards: Ekstrand (90)
Goals: Deeney (12, 85), Battocchio (45)
Referee: Trevor Kettle