IT COULD easily have been different, but Watford were held to a 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road by Nottingham Forest this evening, in Slavisa Jokanovic’s first home match at the helm.
A breathless first-half saw Odion Ighalo give the Hornets the lead, but his goal was quickly cancelled out by Forest’s Michail Antonio.
Matej Vydra notched his sixth of the campaign just after half-time from the spot, but that lead too was quickly stolen away, Antonio again on hand to level the scores.
The draw sees Watford slip to second place in the Sky Bet Championship, courtesy of Derby County’s 1-0 win at Blackpool.
Jokanovic made one change to the Hornets' starting XI from Saturday's 3-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday.
The Serb elected to bring in Juan Carlos Paredes to the defence in place of Lloyd Doyley, while club captain Troy Deeney continued to be eased into action, taking his place on the substitutes’ bench.
Former Golden Boy Britt Assombalonga began in attack for Stuart Pearce's men, as the team from the City Ground sought to end a run of five games without a league win.
It was the open start many were expecting, with both teams going close in the first five minutes.
With the Watford goal unmanned, Antonio slipped at the pivotal moment after a failed punch from Heurelho Gomes dropped to him in the six-yard box.
At the other end, Forest stopper Karl Darlow reacted well to a swerving effort from Fernando Forestieri, swatting the ball away with a firm right hand.
The front-man saw a clever outside-of-the-foot strike fly marginally over Darlow’s crossbar soon after, as the Golden Boys took control of the game early on.
The Reds saw a David Vaughan free-kick flicked narrowly wide with Gomes scrambling across his line, and a lightning quick move down the Hornets’ left saw Vydra thwarted by Darlow’s outstretched leg in an entertaining beginning at The Vic.
Jokanovic’s men were playing some wonderful football, and Darlow rescued the visitors again on 26 minutes as Forestieri’s disguised cutback was struck first-time by Vydra, forcing an instinctive low save from the Forest number one.
But, deservedly, Watford did break the deadlock. Abdi flung a hopeful ball into the box, and a deft touch from Gianni Munari fell perfectly for Ighalo to stroke home his third goal of the season.
As quickly as the home side were ahead, though, Forest were on level terms – and it was a goal that could have been avoided.
Uncharacteristically, Abdi conceded possession with a mis-judged pass across the centre circle, and, with Joel Ekstrand losing his footing, Antonio was unchallenged en route to goal, powering through to slot past Gomes.
The equaliser stunned the home crowd and seemed to unnerve the Golden Boys, whose crisp, composed passing game fell apart in the immediate aftermath of the goal.
However, the best chance before the interval fell to Watford – and it was steeped in controversy.
Vydra got to the ball ahead of a flat-footed Kelvin Wilson, and, primed to pull the trigger one-on-one with Darlow, saw his legs taken from under him by Michael Mancienne on the edge of the box.
A heated exchange followed between both sets of players and referee Dean Whitestone – but the former Chelsea man was shown a yellow card, rather than the red it so easily could have been.
Important, then, for the ‘Orns not to let the events at the end of the first period detract from what was, arguably, their best home half of the campaign.
Jokanovic’s charges steamed into the second-half, penning the visitors inside their half for much of the opening 10 minutes – and were rewarded with an early goal.
Ighalo’s wonderfully weighted floater released Forestieri left of centre, and the Argentine-Italian squared for Vydra, who was bundled to the ground by Wilson for a penalty.
The Czech man made no mistake with the spot-kick, drilling the ball into the bottom right of the net for 2-1.
Coming on in place of Ighalo, Deeney entered the fray to a standing ovation, with 25 minutes in which to lead the line.
Again, though, it wasn’t long before Pearce’s side pulled level. Despite the Hornets’ claims that a ball on the right touchline had gone out of play, a tantalising cross from Chris Burke was powered home by the forehead of Antonio.
The game was always unlikely to maintain the tempo of the first 60 minutes for its entirety, and Forest’s second equaliser certainly sucked some energy from the Hornets’ play.
The Reds seemed content with their point, and the option of injecting some late pace into the game through Ikechi Anyi or Lloyd Dyer was denied to the Hornets when Sebastien Bassong limped off to be replaced by Tommie Hoban.
Neither side threatened to steal all three points, in a flat end to the match.
Saturday’s trip to the Riverside to face Middlesbrough seems all the more important now, as an equally matched top six battle for supremacy at the top of the league.
HORNETS: Gomes (GK) (c); Paredes, Ekstrand, Bassong (Hoban, 84), Pudil; Tozser, Abdi (Murray, 50), Munari; Forestieri, Vydra; Ighalo (Deeney, 65).
Subs not used: Bond (GK), Doyley, Dyer, Anya.
REDS: Darlow (GK), Lichaj, Mancienne (c), Wilson, Harding, Antonio, Vaughan, Tesche, Burke, Osborn, Assombalonga (Fryatt, 89).
Subs not used: De Vries (GK), Fox, Hunt, Lascelles, Paterson, Blackstock.
Referee: Dean Whitestone
Attendance: 16,095 (1,697 Forest fans)