DERBY County crept back into the Championship’s top six but were denied a first league win in seven games by 10-man Watford at the iPro Stadium.
The Rams fell behind midway through the first half when Matej Vydra capitalised on poor defending from Cyrus Christie to rifle home his 13th goal of the season.
But Darren Bent levelled from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time as defender Marco Motta became the seventh Hornets player to be sent off this term.
Tom Ince wriggled his way into the box to fire Derby ahead 12 minutes after the break but, with 15 minutes remaining, Odion Ighalo rescued a point for Watford with a composed finish for his 18th goal of the season.
Steve McClaren’s side, who have only won one of their last six home games, climb above Ipswich and Wolves into the play-off places on goal difference.
But their automatic promotion hopes are all but over with the Rams – who are in their lowest position in the table since late September – now six points off the top two with six games left.
Watford had the opportunity to go top with a win after Bournemouth drew at Ipswich earlier but Slovisa Jokanovic’s men slip to fourth, a point behind the Cherries, having started Good Friday in second place.
Derby made a bright start with Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes saving well from Johnny Russell before losing midfielder George Thorne to a recurrence of a hamstring problem.
Watford gained a foothold and went ahead on 23 minutes when sloppy play from Christie allowed Ighalo to close him down and Vydra profited from the ricochet to beat Lee Grant with a low strike.
The Rams responded positively as a Will Hughes effort from 20 yards flew inches wide and were given a route back into the game shortly before the interval.
Substitute Jeff Hendrick played in Russell who was sent sprawling by former Juventus full-back Motta, who was given his marching orders and on-loan Aston Villa striker Bent expertly converted the spotkick.
Both sides created opportunities in the opening exchanges of the second half as Watford captain Troy Deeney’s header was parried by Grant while opposite number Gomes prevented an own goal from Craig Cathcart.
But Derby made their numerical advantage count by conjuring up a glorious finish with Ince jinking his way into the penalty area before despatching a left-footed shot for his seventh goal since joining on loan from Hull in January.
The Rams had two further appeals for a spotkick waved away by referee Kevin Friend when Ince appeared to be brought down by Cathcart and Russell’s shot cannoned against the arm of Gabriele Angella.
However, against the odds, a spirited Watford wrestled back the initiative and nicked a decisive leveller when the impressive Adlene Guedioura played in Ighalo, who prodded home from close range for his 15th goal in his last 13 appearances.
Derby, who introduced 19-goal top scorer Chris Martin from the bench after a 10-game absence, went close to snatching a winner as Bent was denied one-on-one by Gomes and Ince blazed over from 12 yards after an incisive Hughes pass.
With the final kick of the game in the sixth minute of stoppage time, Rams captain Richard Keogh’s header was kept out by a fine Gomes save.
But – much to the delight of their travelling fans – Watford held out for a creditable point following a topsy-turvy encounter between the two promotion contenders which summed up the unpredictability of the second tier this season.
Yet a draw will feel like a defeat for last season’s play-off finalists Derby, who have not won since February 24.
McClaren felt it was a missed opportunity by his side and said “we only had ourselves to blame.”
He told Sky Sports: “We started OK but gave away a sloppy first goal. We reacted well, got the penalty, [playing against] 10 men and we said at half-time let’s be ruthless and go for it.
“We got the goal and then we stopped. We went from minute 60 to minute 90 and thought the game was over, just keeping the ball and playing backwards.
“It was too negative. We weren’t ruthless enough, we didn’t go forward, dropped our tempo and allowed them back into the game.”
Substitutes: Hendrick (on for Thorne 29′), Lingard (on for Christie 45′), C Martin (on for Bryson 76′).
Not used: Roos (GK), Warnock, Albentosa, Ward.
Booked: Bryson (56′), Keogh (90+5′)
Goals: Bent (45+1′ pen), Ince (57′)
Substitutes: Tozser (on for Vydra 45′), Anya (on for Layun 63′), Connolly (on for Ighalo 78′).
Not used: Bond (GK), Munari, Doyley, Pudil.
Booked: Watson (6′), Deeney (65′), Connolly (90+1′), Cathcart (90+4′)
Sent-off: Motta (44′)
Goals: Vydra (23′), Oghalo (75′)
Assists: Ighalo, Guedioura
Referee: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire) – 7/10
All pictures courtesy of Sky Sports footage