Match ends, Cardiff City 1, Watford 5.
Gerard Deulofeu scored Watford's first top-flight hat-trick since 1986 as they boosted their hopes of a Europa League spot by cruising to victory at Cardiff.
Deulofeu put the Hornets in front on 18 minutes before two goals in the space of as many second-half minutes ended any hope of a fightback from the hosts, who played a role in their own downfall with some woeful defending.
The Spaniard opened the scoring after Bruno Manga gave the ball away, and doubled the advantage after a quick counter-attack. He completed his hat-trick after Harry Arter surrendered the ball tamely.
Deulofeu then set up Troy Deeney for a tap-in as Watford took a 4-0 lead.
Cardiff arguably could have done better for the visitors' opening three goals, though they were aggrieved at 1-0 that they were not awarded what looked a clear penalty when Daryl Janmaat brought down Josh Murphy.
They did manage a consolation when Sol Bamba bundled home, but the four-goal margin was restored when Deeney scored his second from Will Hughes' cross in injury time.
Victory sends Watford up to seventh while Cardiff remain 17th, though they could return to the relegation zone over the weekend.
Watford aiming for Europe
Many felt Watford would be in the lower reaches of the table this season along with Cardiff, but as March approaches they are seventh and through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
They just about shaded the early exchanges here, though their opening goal was a gift from the hosts.
Cardiff failed to clear not once but three times, with Manga surrendering possession and Sean Morrison and Joe Bennett failing to win back the ball in a scrappy passage of play that culminated with Deulofeu sweeping home a precise, controlled finish.
As with the first, Watford's second was as much about Cardiff's poor defending as anything, with the Hornets countering from a set-piece and Deulofeu finishing after outpacing Manga and rounding Neil Etheridge.
He repeated the trick shortly afterwards. This time Arter surrendered possession and Deulofeu again had time and space to finish and score Watford's first hat-trick in the top division since Mark Falco.
The 24-year old Spaniard capped a brilliant display with an assist for Deeney, who could not miss after a fine team move as he ended a run of eight games without a goal against the Bluebirds.
And Deeney was not done there, sweeping home from Hughes' cross after Bamba had pulled a goal back by firing home from a rebound after his header hit the post.
"I am happy with the way we are playing," said Hornets manager Javi Gracia. "We are competing in all the games and with this ambition, I am sure we can achieve something different this season.
"We have 40 points now which is good, but we want to keep going in the league and FA Cup.
"I am very proud of all my players, they are showing their quality and commitment, the team is getting better and better, but we must try to improve."
Cardiff clobbered after emotional week
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock spoke this week about the need to perform in "12 cup finals" but their preparation was again overshadowed by the fallout over the transfer of Emiliano Sala.
Sala was Cardiff's record signing but never played for the club - he died when a plane piloted by David Ibbotson, who remains missing, crashed.
Warnock said the £15m transfer could have been better conducted, but that chairman Mehmet Dalman "will do things in the right way".
Cardiff now look to Everton loanee Oumar Niasse as their main goal threat, but he was found wanting just before Watford's opener as he poked the ball straight at Ben Foster after stealing in behind the visitors' defence.
Winger Murphy also looked lively - firing straight at Foster from a decent position - and thought he should have been awarded a penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Bluebirds boss Warnock could not get over "the injustice of it".
He told BBC Match of the Day: "Troy Deeney and all their staff told us it was a stonewall penalty. I had to try and get it out of their minds at half-time.
"When everyone from the opponents tell you and deep down I think all the officials knew really. I think the referees guess a lot of the time and you can't do that at this level."
The Bluebirds were attempting to win three consecutive top-flight league games for the first time since February 1961, but Watford's opening goal appeared to dent their confidence and they never recovered.
Deulofeu joins the Windass and Henry club - stats
- Warnock has lost his past four home league matches against Watford by an aggregate of 16-2, with this his 16th league defeat against the Hornets. Only against Reading (16) has he lost as many league matches as a manager.
- Watford scored five goals in a top-flight match for the first time since winning 5-1 against Leicester in November 1986.
- Deulofeu has had a hand in seven goals in his past three Premier League appearances against Cardiff (5 goals, 2 assists).
- Deulofeu became only the third player to score a Premier League hat-trick on a Friday, after Dean Windass (Bradford v Derby, April 2000) and Thierry Henry (Arsenal v Liverpool and Leeds in April 2004).
- Deeney's first seven Premier League assists were all for Odion Ighalo - his nine since have been for eight different players (Capoue twice, Kabasele, Niang, Richarlison, Doucoure, Gray, Sema and Deulofeu).
- Cardiff have conceded 28 home Premier League goals this season - more than any other side.
- All four Premier League hat-tricks scored in Wales have been scored by the opposition - Luis Suarez v Cardiff (Liverpool, 2014), Riyad Mahrez v Swansea (Leicester, 2015), Jermain Defoe v Swansea (Sunderland, 2016) and Deulofeu.
Man of the match - Gerard Deulofeu (Watford)
Cardiff City host Everton in the Premier League on Tuesday, 26 February. Watford are at Liverpool the following night.
- 5Ecuele Manga
- 8RallsSubstituted forMendez-Laingat 67'minutes
- 13PatersonBooked at 85mins
- 29NiasseSubstituted forZohoreat 71'minutes
- 11MurphySubstituted forHoilettat 56'minutes
- 14De Cordova-Reid
- 29CapoueBooked at 30minsSubstituted forCleverleyat 79'minutes
- 37PereyraBooked at 55minsSubstituted forQuinaat 71'minutes
- 7DeulofeuSubstituted forGrayat 86'minutes
- Simon Hooper
- Shots on Target
Second Half ends, Cardiff City 1, Watford 5.
Offside, Watford. Troy Deeney tries a through ball, but Tom Cleverley is caught offside.
Goal! Cardiff City 1, Watford 5. Troy Deeney (Watford) right footed shot from the centre of the box to the bottom right corner. Assisted by Will Hughes.
Will Hughes (Watford) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Harry Arter (Cardiff City).
Attempt missed. Callum Paterson (Cardiff City) right footed shot from outside the box is high and wide to the right. Assisted by Kenneth Zohore.
Foul by Abdoulaye Doucouré (Watford).
Sol Bamba (Cardiff City) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Corner, Cardiff City. Conceded by Domingos Quina.
Tom Cleverley (Watford) hits the left post with a right footed shot from a difficult angle and long range on the left from a direct free kick.
Substitution, Watford. Andre Gray replaces Gerard Deulofeu.
Callum Paterson (Cardiff City) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Domingos Quina (Watford) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Foul by Callum Paterson (Cardiff City).
Foul by Domingos Quina (Watford).
Joe Bennett (Cardiff City) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Goal! Cardiff City 1, Watford 4. Sol Bamba (Cardiff City) left footed shot from the right side of the six yard box to the centre of the goal following a corner.
Attempt blocked. Bruno Ecuele Manga (Cardiff City) right footed shot from very close range is blocked.
Sol Bamba (Cardiff City) hits the right post with a header from the right side of the six yard box. Assisted by David Junior Hoilett with a cross following a corner.