Full-time: Jamie Ward penalty in vain as Derby County lose 2-1 at Watford
DERBY County were beaten 2-1 by high-flying Watford at Vicarage Road.
Czech Republic international Matej Vydra gave the Hornets a half-time lead before defender Joel Ekstrand doubled the home side's lead after the break.
Jamie Ward pulled one back with his 11th goal of the season, from the penalty spot, but the Rams could not find an equaliser.
Ben Davies got the nod to start at right-back for Derby in place of the injured Kieron Freeman (ankle) in the only change from the 1-1 draw with Bolton Wanderers in midweek.
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New loan signing from Norwich City, striker Chris Martin, was named on the bench, where there was also a return for defender Jake Buxton (knee).
Midfielder Will Hughes (groin) missed out again, while left-back Gareth Roberts served the final game of his three-match ban.
Watford had won six of their previous eight games and began in confident mood.
Vydra wriggled between the Derby centre-halves in the sixth minute before seeing his shot blocked by the onrushing Adam Legzdins.
The ball broke to Alex Geijo but his lob towards the unguarded net was off target.
Legzdins was called into action again soon after, pushing away Marco Cassetti's angled drive.
In the 10th minute, the ball broke nicely for Ward following an aerial challenge with Ekstrand but fired over the joint of post and crossbar from the edge of the box.
The Rams carved out some promising openings but were unable to take full advantage, while they were grateful to Richard Keogh and Craig Bryson for some timely interventions at the other end.
Ekstrand blazed over from eight yards after Almen Abdi's corner fell to his feet just before the half-hour.
Watford squandered a great chance in the 33rd minute. Vydra skipped past Keogh, raced into the area and squared the ball for Ikechi Anya, who shot wide when it looked easier to score.
The Hornets were soon ahead, though. Vydra took up possession just inside the Derby half and had only one thought in his mind.
He advanced towards goals and let fly with a left-foot strike from the edge of the box, which hit the inside of the post and rolled into the opposite corner of the net.
Watford lost their keeper and skipper, Manuel Almunia, to injury just before the break.
His replacement, Jonathan Bond, denied Bryson after the midfielder had latched on to a pass from Paul Coutts.
There was still time for one more Watford attack - Nathaniel Chalobah's firm drive being parried by Legzdins before John Brayford cleared the danger.
Derby made a double change at the interval - Buxton replacing injured left-back Michael Hoganson and Martin coming on for Michael Jacobs.
Martin went up front, while the defence was reshuffled, with Buxton in the middle, Brayford on the right and Davies on the left.
The Rams tried to find a way back into the game but went further behind in the 68th minute.
Abdi's corner from the right was met by the head of Ekstrand and although the defender did not make the cleanest of connections, it was enough to take it past Legzdins.
Out of nowhere, the Rams got one back in the 73rd minute.
Referee Mark Haywood spotted a push on Keogh in the box following a corner and awarded a penalty.
Ward stepped up and smashed home from the spot, straight down the middle.
Cristian Battocchio curled a shot just wide after another heroic block from Keogh.
Derby almost had an equaliser when Coutts' low cross from the right narrowly evaded Ward in the middle - but that was as close as they got.
GOALS: Vydra (35) 1-0; Ekstrand (68) 2-0; Ward pen (73) 2-1.
WATFORD: Almunia (Bond, 45), Doyley, Nosworthy, Ekstrand, Cassetti, Abdi, Battocchio (Hogg, 75), Chalobah, Anya, Geijo, Vydra (Deeney, 88). Other subs: Yeates, Forsyth, Murray, Forestieri.
DERBY COUNTY: Legzdins, Davies, Keogh, Brayford, Hoganson (Buxton, 46), Coutts, Hendrick, Bryson, Jacobs (Martin, 46), Ward, Sammon (Bennett, 72). Other subs: Fielding (gk), Gjokaj, Hanson, Doyle.
REFEREE: M Haywood (West Yorkshire).
ATTENDANCE: 14,425 (929 away fans).
BOOKINGS: Derby - Davies (45+3) foul on Vydra; Ward (57) foul on Battocchio. Watford - none.