Watford tasted Sky Bet Championship defeat for the first time in 2023 at the hands of promotion-rivals Middlesbrough, with first-half goals from Chuba Akpom and Marcus Forss earning Michael Carrick’s charges a 2-0 win at the Riverside Stadium.
There were chances at both ends throughout the opening 45 minutes, with Matheus Martins arguably going closest for the Golden Boys, but Boro proved more clinical and two goals in 10 minutes put the home side in the driving seat.
A feast of changes to the Watford team at the start and during the second half saw Tobi Adeyemo and new boy Henrique Araújo threaten to reduce the deficit - though ultimately without reward - as the hosts clung on to extend their own impressive run of form.
The result sees Watford fall below the Teessiders into fourth in the league standings, having played one game more than the majority of the teams around them, ahead of next week’s trip to Reading (Saturday February 4, 3pm KO).
Head Coach Slaven Bilić made two changes to the XI that drew at home to Rotherham United last time out, with Hassane Kamara and Keinan Davis returning in place of James Morris and Vakoun Bayo respectively, while recent recruit Araújo was named on the bench.
Both teams struggled to make anything of their possession in the very early stages until Championship top scorer Akpom won the game’s first corner, the former Arsenal man’s strike being blocked by a combination of Watford bodies after Cameron Archer had struggled to get the ball out of his feet.
Kamara - making his first start following suspension - embarked on one of his trademark bursts forward in the 10th minute, but couldn’t quite release his on-rushing fellow full-back João Ferreira, before the latter did well to win a corner for the Hornets moments later.
A dangerous Ryan Giles cross - that almost found Akpom lurking in the away six-yard box - served a reminder of Boro’s quality, and then Daniel Bachmann was called on to make a smart save from Forss’ stinging effort at his near post.
The hosts were gradually growing in confidence, and Hamza Choudhury - having joined Craig Cathcart and Francisco Sierralta in a back three - did well to divert an Archer shot away from danger.
Chances continued at both ends however, and Ismaïla Sarr skewed a curling effort narrowly off target on the 18-minute mark, eight minutes shy of a neat team move that saw Martins lift his shot too high over the crossbar.
Sarr came close to snatching the ball from home goalkeeper Zack Steffen close to the goal line - the USA international narrowly escaping embarrassment with a late clearance - but opposite number Bachmann showed all his quality to keep out Archer in the 33rd minute after the Aston Villa loanee had worked himself into a shooting position.
Akpom did net the opener for Middlesbrough nine minutes before half-time though, the 27-year-old reacting quickest to another Bachmann save from Archer’s initial effort, and finishing at the second attempt to make it 1-0.
A succession of away defensive errors required Bachmann to prevent Watford going further behind, along with a crucial Cathcart block to deny Archer, but there was still time for Forss to double Boro’s lead ahead of the break after being cleverly picked out by Jonny Howson.
Bilić rung the changes prior to the restart - with Araújo coming on for his debut alongside Leandro Bacuna and Adeyemo - and the latter quickly signalled his intention to score his second for the club with a fizzing attempt from the edge of the box.
The 17-year-old went close again in the 54th minute - this time firing his shot into the path of a Middlesbrough defender after neat trickery from Martins - but Giles soon found an opening for the men in red, ultimately shooting too close to Bachmann.
Watford’s lack of luck with injuries continued when Ferreira was forced off with a suspected hamstring problem on the 63-minute mark, being replaced by Yáser Asprilla, moments before Bachmann palmed away a Hayden Hackney shot.
Steffen did well to snuff out a chance for Araújo as the clock ticked towards the red, before an encouraging-looking Sarr run was ruled offside, as Boro held on to earn the full share of the spoils.