SHEFFIELD Wednesday’s away defeat against promotion-chasing Watford will come as no great surprise across the country.
But the scoreline fails to do justice to a gritty and at times pulsating performance by the Owls.
They snatched a 19th-minute lead with Michail Antonio’s ninth goal of the season and pummelled Watford at times during the first half, forcing saves from Jonathan Bond and failing to get the rub of the green when a header by Lewis Buxton appeared both to go over the goalline and be handled by defender Nyron Nosworthy.
Waytford hit back with two goals by half-time sub Fernando Forestieri early in the second half but still Wednesday kept going and another save by Bond kept out a last-minute header by sub Leroy Lita.
With Lita on the bench, Dave Jones was seemingly seeking to combat the sort of midfield fluency and numbers that contributed to Watford’s 4-1 win at Hillsborough in November and Forest’s first-half dominance last Saturday.
Jones recalled Kieran Lee as the extra midfield man in a 4-5-1 formation that was 4-3-3 when the Owls were in possession - and it worked a treat, with Connor Wickham having perhaps his best game yet, as the central striker.
Watford, fielding a fluid 3-5-2 system, made the first chance in the seventh minute.
Miguel Llera was lured out to the left touchline by Troy Deeney and was then beaten by the centre-forward, who ran into the box and shot wide of the far post.
But Wednesday went close in their first attack, six minutes later.
Michail Antonio crossed accurately, Wickham chested the ball down, hit a fine volley on the turn, and saw Bond tip the ball over the bar - an excellent save.
Right winger Ikechi Anya made the next opening; his low cross was clipped wide of the near post by striker Matej Vydra.
Two minutes after that Wednesday were in front. A run by Jeremy Helan in the inside-left position initially put
Watford under pressure. The winger was crowded out, defender Marco Cassetti knocked a short back-pass, Antonio closed down Bond quickly, the keeper lost possession and the Owls winger stuck the loose ball into the empty net from close range.
A right-side free-kick by Llera was pushed into the air by Bond; when the ball dropped Buxton got in a header almost on the line and claimed fruitlessly that it had crossed the line before it was pulled clear by Nosworthy.
TV evidence was said to have shown that Nosworthy kept the ball out with his arm and that it crossed the line.
Then Helan, with a drive from a narrow angle, forced a great one-handed save from Bond, and when the ball came out Lee was presented with a sitter, which he smashed way off target.
Moments after that Pugh hit the target with a power drive and Bond beat it away.
Kirkland too made a good save, touching a shot by Deeney over the bar.
But Bond was having to perform heroically for his team: Wickham tested him again, with a fine 25-yarder that was turned over the bar.
The young striker then turned creator: his cross made a chance that the head of Llera glanced wide.
It was franctic stuff, and centre-back Joel Ekstrand struck an opportunity over the top after the ball dropped from a corner. Bond had a rather easier save to make from a low effort by Coke, who was under intense pressure from defenders during his surge into the box, was tackled as he shot and suffered an injury that brought Jose Semedo intro the fray in the 40th minute.
It had been a terrific first half from the Owls. It was a compliment to Wednesday that Watford made two substitions at half-time.
Vydra missed the ball and a chance early in the second half, and Wickham headed just wide.
It was cruel on Wednesday when they were pegged back in the 53rd minute. Anya, who had been swotched to the left, forced a corner; it was flicked on for sub Fernado Forestieri to pounce at the far post and blast the ball into the roof of the net.
Watford swarmed forward and Forestieri, who had been sent on as an extra forward, made it 2-1 in the 63rd minute, On the edge of the box, after taking a ball from the right, he seemed to have nowhere to go but made room for a right-foot shot and drilled it low in between Kirkland and Dave Prutton - who then tripped the scorer as he he ran past to celebrate, and was booked, as was Vydra for pushing Prutton.
Wednesday were really up against it now, but an equaliser beckoned when Antonio sneaked into space behind the defence. He tried to tee up Wickham but the ball was nicked away from the youngster by the home team.
Lita and Jermaine Johnson were thrown on to add attacking impetus, and Lita went desperately close to a deserved equaliser in the last minute, with a header that Bond saved.
HORNETS: Bond 9; Cassetti 6, Nosworthy 7, Ekstrand 7; Anya 7 (Doyley 83), Abdi 7, Battochio 7, Hogg 6 (Chalobah h-t, 7, Pudil 6 (Forestieri h-t, 8); Deeney 7, Vydra 6. Subs: Bonham, Yeates, Murray, Geijo.
OWLS: Kirkland 7; Buxton 7, Llera 7, Gardner 7, Pugh 7 (J Johnson 66, 7); Antonio 7, Lee 7, Prutton 7 (Lita 76), Coke 7 (Semedo 40, 7), Helan 7, Wickham 8. Subs: Bywater, Taylor, McCabe, Madine.
Bookings: Lee, Pugh, Prutton, Vydra, Lita, Forestieri.
Hero: Connor Wickham battled manfully, leading the line as the sole central striker, and taking the eye in the first half when he caused the Hornets defence problems, forcing two good saves from Jonathan Bond and making a chance for Miguel Llera.
Viewpoint: Wednesday can take heart from this display, as they head towards games against two other top sides, Leicester and Cardiff; they caused Watford plenty of problems and can count themselves as unfortunate not to take home some reward.