Darren Fletcher's fine first-half strike was enough for Stoke City as they secured a hard-fought 1-0 win at high-flying Watford to ease the mounting pressure on manager Mark Hughes.
Stoke went into the match having won just one of their last seven in the Premier League and, although they were second best for much of the match, they battled away to earn all three points and clinch a first away win of the campaign.
Fletcher scored what ultimately proved to be the winning goal with a lovely finish just after the quarter-of-an-hour mark, producing a rare moment of quality in a first half which had little flow.
Watford had minimal direction or inspiration in their play and spent most of the half hooking hopeless balls into the penalty area, meaning clear-cut chances were a rarity.
The home side improved as an attacking unit after the interval and put Stoke under considerable pressure, with Richarlison going close twice, but still the Hornets were frustrated.
It was one-way traffic in the final stages, as Stoke put men behind the ball and successfully held on to a commendable victory against a Watford side who would have climbed to fifth with a win.
The early exchanges were extremely scrappy at Vicarage Road, with a series of fouls meaning both sides struggled to exert control.
But in the 16th minute, Fletcher produced a finish which was far superior to the standard of football previously on show.
Xherdan Shaqiri played his corner delivery to the edge of the box and the experienced Scot placed an exquisite first-time effort into the bottom-right corner.
Watford should have at least tested Jack Butland 10 minutes later, but Troy Deeney failed to bring Jose Holebas' fine left-wing cross under his spell.
The hosts began to look the more assertive of the two teams and their hopeful balls into the box did cause Stoke problems, but the chances just refused to fall to Watford.
Marco Silva's men looked rather more purposeful at the start of the second half and crafted their first chance of the match two minutes after the break – Deeney meeting Kiko Femenia's low cross at the near post and seeing it deflected wide of the target.
Stoke were hanging on a little and almost had their lead wiped out in the 56th minute, but Richarlison could only find the side-netting from a tight angle after Andre Carrillo headed Etienne Capoue's cross back across the face of goal.
The away side could have given Watford a mountain to climb after an hour, as Joe Allen dragged wide from 12 yards after good work by Ramadan Sobhi.
That was a rare Stoke chance, however, with Watford going close twice in quick succession shortly after – Richarlison headed wide from close range at the back post, before Andre Gray lashed an 18-yard volley harmlessly wide.
Watford piled the pressure on towards the end but were frustrated by Stoke's defensive belligerence, and the visitors should have finished with a man advantage.
Deeney and Allen clashed, with the striker grabbing hold of the Wales international's face as something of a brawl ensued, and the Watford man somehow escaped without being sent off.
And Stoke almost had the last laugh, only for Charlie Adam to hit the post from distance after evading Heurelho Gomes, who had come well out of his goal.
But it mattered little, with Hughes' men holding on.
Key Opta stats:
- Watford have lost their last four games against Stoke, after winning four of the previous six (D2) and keeping a clean sheet in each match in that run.
- Stoke have now won four consecutive matches against Watford for the first time since December 2004 under Tony Pulis.
- The Hornets mustered 14 shots in the game without directing any on target; only Burnley managed more shots in a Premier League game this season without getting one on target (20 v West Brom in August).
- Watford have suffered consecutive league defeats for the first time this season, and since losing their last six league games of 2016-17.
- Darren Fletcher netted his first Premier League goal in his last 26 appearances in the competition, since scoring for West Brom v Sunderland on January 21, 2017.