A moment of the highest quality settled an otherwise drab evening at The Vic, as Emre Can’s acrobatic strike in first-half stoppage time condemned Watford to a 1-0 defeat.
Liverpool certainly enjoyed the better of the chances during the opening 45 minutes, but Watford held strong and were arguably worth a point going into half-time.
But Can’s impressive bicycle kick during time added on meant the Hornets trailed at the break, and they rarely looked like finding a way back as the game progressed.
That said, Sebastian Prödl very nearly scored a dramatic equaliser right at the death, clattering the bar with a 94th-minute effort, but in the end Watford fell to a first defeat at home in four attempts.
Walter Mazzarri named one change to his starting line-up after last weekend’s defeat at Hull, with Adrian Mariappa replacing Jose Holebas, who had a slight foot problem.
Mariappa started alongside Prödl and Miguel Britos as the Hornets reverted to a back-three, with Nordin Amrabat at right wing-back and Daryl Janmaat on the left.
There was an early blow for Liverpool who lost Philippe Coutinho to injury in the 13th minute, although they had a ready-made replacement in England international Adam Lallana, who came on for his first appearance since March after a spell in the treatment room.
Watford were forced into a change of their own five minutes later, Christian Kabasele replacing the injured Britos in defence.
Can hit what appeared to be a hopeful shot from distance 21 minutes in, but it was a fierce strike and Heurelho Gomes had to be at full stretch to palm away with his left glove.
It was a half of little goalmouth action, although Liverpool went within a whisker of opening the scoring shortly before the break. Gomes punched a corner as far as Lallana, who volleyed first-time from 25 yards against the underside of the bar. Fortunately for the Hornets it bounced the right side of the line, and Abdoulaye Doucouré cleared to safety.
There was time for a Liverpool goal before half-time, though. Can met a chipped Lucas Leiva ball over the top with a stunning overhead kick, which nestled into the top corner with two minutes of stoppage time played.
Early in the second-half, Divock Origi cut inside Kabasele down Liverpool’s left and forced Gomes to tip wide a right-footed curler from the edge of the box.
Then moments later the Belgian striker got the wrong side of his international teammate Kabasele once more, but this time drew a more routine save low down from Brazilian stopper Gomes.
Étienne Capoue had Watford’s best chance so far on 68 minutes. Amrabat collected a headed clearance and saw his shot blocked, then Capoue fired the loose ball just over from the edge of the area. Replays showed Simon Mignolet got the final touch, tipping narrowly above the bar, but referee Craig Pawson awarded a goal-kick.
Janmaat’s right-footed strike from 20 yards had Mignolet scrambling with seven minutes to go, but the Liverpool keeper just about got behind it in time to save at the near post.
Gomes saved low to his right to deny Liverpool sub Daniel Sturridge in the last minute of normal time, but Watford were to go even closer at the other end.
Janmaat helped a deep Cleverley cross over to Prödl four minutes into added time, and the Austrian defender’s half-volley smashed agonisingly against the bar in what proved to be the last chance of the game.
HORNETS: Gomes (GK); Mariappa, Prödl, Britos (Kabasele, 19); Amrabat (Okaka, 85), Cleverley, Doucouré, Capoue (Success, 73), Janmaat; Deeney (c), Niang.
Subs not used: Pantilimon (GK), Eleftheriou, Zúñiga, Behrami.
Yellow card: Prödl (48), Capoue (68), Success (90+5)
REDS: Mignolet (GK); Clyne, Lovren, Matip, Milner; Lucas, Can, Wijnaldum; Coutinho (Lallana, 13) (Klavan, 86), Firmino, Origi (Sturridge, 84).
Subs not used: Karius (GK), Moreno, Grujic, Alexander- Arnold.
Goal: Can (45+2)
Yellow card: Lucas (44)
Referee: Craig Pawson