It could have been so different for Forest, who missed excellent chances to score at 0-0 and 2-1, but Watford’s ability to take their chances proved pivotal.
Odion Ighalo was first to make his mark, nodding home a close range header, before Matthew Connolly rounded off an excellent counter attack shortly before the break.
Forest went down to ten men on the hour when Kelvin Wilson was sent off after clashing with Ighalo, but Gary Gardner kept The Reds’ hope alive with an excellent free-kick 18 minutes from time.
Dougie Freedman’s men kept up their pressure but were hit by a Almen Abdi sucker punch with three minutes of normal time to play.
The Forest manager made three changes to the side that faced Huddersfield at the weekend.
There were changes in central midfield as Gardner returned from suspension to take David Vaughan’s place, while Ben Osborn came in for Henri Lansbury. Jack Hobbs captained the side.
Todd Kane was also brought into the starting line up, replacing Danny Fox, who dropped to the bench alongside Lansbury and Vaughan.
Mo Barrow and Dexter Blackstock recovered from injuries in time to also take their place among the substitutes, while Watford handed a start to former Forest midfielder Adlene Guedioura.
The Reds could have been in front with less than a minute on the clock. Chuba Akpom received the ball in the area and cut it back for Michail Antonio, who miscued his shot to the back post where Chris Burke was waiting eight yards out.
He could only fire the ball straight at Heurelho Gomes, who managed to turn it behind for a corner.
Three minutes later, a corner at the other end saw the visitors take the lead. Abdi’s delivery from the left was flicked on at the near post and Ighalo had the simple task of nodding the ball into the net from close range.
Antonio and Osborn offered sweet strikes from outside the area by way of response, both of which were pushed away well by Gomes, before the Brazilian keeper held on to Gardner’s strike after the Aston Villa loanee made a strong run through the Hornets’ midfield.
It had been a bright retort from The Reds, but they should have been 2-0 down on 23 minutes when Ighalo’s neat pass cut Forest’s defence apart and allowed Abdi through one-on-one with Karl Darlow. Somehow, he toe-poked the ball wide.
Watford were playing some excellent football and it was after more good build-up that Guedioura was able to unleash a powerful effort at goal from the edge of Forest’s area. The ball flew a yard over the bar.
Kane set about sparking Forest’s attacking play back into life, turning away from his man brilliantly and carrying the ball into Watford’s half. He supplied Antonio, whose curling effort appeared to catch Gomes off-guard. The keeper adjusted his feet quickly to make a comfortable save.
Darlow had to move his own feet niftily shortly afterwards, scampering across his goal line to hold on to the ball after Abdi curled a free-kick towards his top corner.
Eric Lichaj is not known for his spectacular goals, but he nearly scored one six minutes before the break when the ball dropped to him near the corner of the area. He displayed excellent technique to volley it goalwards, but it took a nick off a Watford defender and flew just wide of the near post.
The Hornets were refusing to sit back on their lead however and broke away to devastating effect on 41 minutes. Left back Connolly took the ball from the edge of one box to the other before offloading it to Ighalo. The striker cut inside Wilson on to his left foot before seeing his shot saved low down by Darlow. Connolly had continued his run, however, and was first to pounce on the rebound, turning the ball home from close range.
Forest nearly halved the deficit almost immediately. Lichaj and Antonio did brilliantly to work an opening from near the left corner flag and Antonio pulled the ball back to the edge of the area, where Gardner was on hand to stroke it goalwards. Akpom resisted the urge to flail a leg at the ball and Gomes got down to his right to make a good save, ensuring his side went into the break 2-0 up.
And they came close to making it three within two minutes of the restart. Marco Motta’s cross from the right set up Ikechi Anya perfectly to volley the ball towards Darlow’s bottom right-hand corner. The keeper produced an excellent save to turn it behind.
The Reds weren’t lying down however, and Burke had another good chance to put his name on the scoresheet on 50 minutes. Antonio did well to work space for a cross down the left, firing the ball low into the middle where Burke had moved into an unmarked position. The Scotsman could only fire it over the bar with a first-time effort on the stretch.
As he was against Huddersfield, Burke was proving pivotal to most of Forest’s forward forays. He capitalised on Cathcart’s poor crossfield pass and burst towards Watford’s area. Before he could get there, however, he was brought down by Abdi. The Swiss midfielder went into the book and Gardner’s free-kick went into the wall.
Forest’s first change saw Tyler Walker replace Akpom, but Freedman was forced into another reshuffle minutes after the young striker’s introduction when Kelvin Wilson was red-carded following an off-the-ball clash with Ighalo. Mancienne, who had been playing a holding midfield role, slotted in alongside Hobbs at centre back.
The Reds were now well and truly up against it, but they had a glimmer of hope on 72 minutes after Cathcart felled Lichaj on the edge of Watford’s area. Gardner did much better with his free-kick this time, curling the ball off the underside of the bar and into the net.
And Gardner could have made it 2-2 with ten minutes to play. Osborn’s quick free-kick released Burke into the area. The winger cut the ball back into the middle but somehow it evaded everyone. Gardner didn’t give it up though, racing to meet it at the back post before blazing it high over the bar.
Despite being a man light, Forest were in the ascendancy and showing genuine signs of scoring an equaliser. As potent as their attacking threat was however, they had to remain alert in defence as the Hornets looked to kill the game off. Darlow had to make an excellent save from Deeney before Juan Carlos Paredes’ cross just evaded Ighalo in the middle.
Just as it looked like Watford were regaining control of the game, Forest created a glorious chance to score a dramatic equaliser. Gomes could only push Gardner’s shot straight at Antonio who, unmarked six yards out and with the goal gaping, could only send the ball wide.
And Forest were punished cruelly for wasting that chance when, with three minutes of normal time remaining, Watford put the match out of sight. Darlow could only parry Guedioura’s piledriver straight to Pudil on the edge of the area, and the Watford man dispatched his shot brilliantly to make it 3-1.
Lansbury and Barrow were both thrown into the action in the dying moments but neither were able to rescue the match for their side.
Forest: Darlow, Lichaj, Hobbs (c), Wilson, Kane, Antonio (Barrow 90'), Osborn (Lansbury 85'), Mancienne, Gardner, Burke, Akpom (Walker 57')
Subs not used: Evtimov, Fox, Blackstock, Vaughan
Goal: Gardner 72'
Sent off: Wilson 60'
Gomes, Cathcart, Angella, Connolly (Hoban 62'), Motta (Paredes 71'), Guedioura, Watson, Abdi, Anya (Tozser 73'), Deeney (c), Ighalo
Subs not used: Bond, Layun, Munari, Vydra
Goals: Ighalo 4', Connolly 41', Abdi 87'
Bookings: Deeney 52', Abdi 55', Motta 65', Cathcart 71'
Referee: Paul Tierney
Attendance: 20,723 (1,942 away)