Raphinha underlined his value to Leeds as Jesse Marsch’s men took a significant step towards Premier League survival with a 3-0 win which pushed Watford closer to relegation.
The Brazilian – who has been heavily linked with a summer switch to Barcelona – stylishly ended a six-game goal drought to set his side on course for a vital three points at Vicarage Road.
In-form duo Rodrigo and Jack Harrison capitalized on some calamitous Hornets defending to seal victory as the West Yorkshire club moved nine points clear of the drop zone.
The beleaguered Hornets had little answer as they slipped to a ninth successive home loss for the first time since the 1971-72 campaign.
Roy Hodgson’s second-bottom hosts are now six points from safety following Everton’s surprise victory over Manchester United and face a major salvage operation to prevent an immediate return to the Championship.
Ismaila Sarr wasted a golden chance to equalize on an extremely frustrating afternoon for the majority in attendance.
Victory for Frank Lampard’s Toffees in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off piled more pressure on a fixture already earmarked as significant in the scrap for survival.
Hornets manager Hodgson stuck with the starting XI which fought valiantly during last weekend’s loss at Liverpool, while Leeds boss Marsch recalled Robin Koch in place of Adam Forshaw on the back of taking seven points from the last nine available.
Following a minute’s applause for former Hornets defender Bill Shipwright, who died recently aged 89, there was little to separate the sides in the edgy opening stages during which possession frequently changed hands.
Watford were the first to seriously threaten, twice testing their visitors from dangerous free-kick situations following a pair of fouls on Juraj Kucka.
Imran Louza had the initial attempt, whipping the ball agonizingly wide of the right post with Illan Meslier rooted to the spot, before Cucho Hernandez’s inswinging set-piece from wide on the left was tipped away by the United goalkeeper.
Roared on by a capacity away following, Leeds shrugged off those narrow escapes and swiftly seized the initiative as Raphinha claimed his overdue goal in the 21st minute.
An unsettled Hornets defense made a mess of two attempted clearances before the visitors’ number 10 collected the ball on the edge of the box and masterfully curled home only his second strike of 2022 – and 10th of the season – via the right post.
The opener meant Watford have now gone 20 top flight home games without a clean sheet, dating back to a 3-0 victory over Liverpool in February 2020.
While Leeds’ vocal supporters – many of whom were dismayed at the sacking of Marcelo Bielsa in late February – sang the name of American coach Marsch in the closing stages of the first half, home fans grew increasingly restless after the restart.
Top scorer Emmanuel Dennis, who replaced injured Colombian Hernandez just before the break, bore the brunt of much of the frustration before Sarr should have leveled with an hour gone.
The Senegal forward has not hit the net for his club since they last won on home soil five months ago and he woefully skewed high and wide after being sent clear by Joao Pedro.
Leeds substitute Kalvin Phillips later stung the palms of Hornets keeper Ben Foster, with the away side repeatedly looking to kill the game on the counter attack.
They duly did so courtesy of some woeful Watford defending.
Spain forward Rodrigo added the second, rounding Foster to slide into the empty net and claim his third goal in four games after Hornets left-back Hassane Kamara catastrophically played the ball against team-mate Samir.
Harrison then rubbed salt in Watford wounds in front of the delirious away fans.
The winger lashed an angled drive across Foster from just outside the box five minutes from time to emphatically grab his third goal in as many games, leading to full-time boos for the outclassed hosts.