Photos: Watford 1, Burnley 1
The 25-year-old Scot’s 86th minute strike cancelled out Troy Deeney’s spectacular first half strike, that on second glance took an unfortunate nick off skipper Jason Shackell.
And results elsewhere - with QPR and Derby County losing out to Bournemouth and Middlesbrough respectively - ensured the Clarets stretched their lead over their promotion rivals to 10 points.
Following defeat to Leicester City last weekend, Burnley boss Sean Dyche made two chances to his starting XI with David Edgar and Keith Treacy stepping in for Sam Vokes and Junior Stanislas in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
The Clarets, up against Beppe Sannino’s attack-minded 3-5-2 set-up, forced the first shot on goal when Treacy’s set-piece - once Ashley Barnes was bundled over by Joel Ekstrand - breached Watford’s wall but Almunia stooped low to gather comfortably.
However, the visitors fell behind in the ninth minute when Deeney netted his 21st of the campaign in spectacular fashion. Ben Mee’s wayward crossfield pass was cut out by Daniel Pudil, and as the hosts broke Deeney picked the ball up 25 yards from goal, had a glance at Tom Heaton, and whipped a delightful shot over the Clarets stopper and in to the roof of the net.
It was a phenomenal strike, though replays suggested that a deflection off Shackell donated the elevation and dip needed to find the aperture between Heaton’s fingertips and the crossbar.
But the Clarets - without injured trio Vokes, Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier as well as suspended midfielder Dean Marney - continued to press and manipulate openings behind wing backs Pudil and Ikechi Anya in a bid to penetrate Watford’s rearguard.
And in the 13th minute the away side thought they’d levelled when Treacy’s inviting cross was swept in to the roof of the net by Barnes, only for assistant referee Richard Hulme to deny the striker his second goal for the club by raising his flag for offside.
At times, Burnley were the perpetrators of their own struggles as the hosts picked off loose passes before breaking at speed. Former Forest attacking midfielder Lewis McGugan went close to hitting double figures for the term with an awkward angled volley that Heaton did well to turn around the post.
While the Clarets were missing their own prolific strike pairing, Watford were making full use of their own as Mathias Ranegie ushered Cristian Battocchio’s pass in to the path of Deeney, with the striker’s first time effort flashing past the angle as he cut across the ball from 20 yards out.
After McGugan’s centre brushed the head of Ranegie at the far post, Barnes was denied by the linesman’s flag once more as he stooped to head Michael Kightly’s cross wide of the upright.
The games was delayed when Battocchio went down under Arfield’s challenge, forcing the former Udinese midfielder to be stretchered off and replaced by Swiss team-mate Almen Abdi.
In the closing stages of the opening half, Arfield sliced wide of the far post after Barnes rose above his marker to cushion Mee’s clearance in to his path while McGugan side-footed an attempt well wide minutes later.
After the break, the Clarets seemed more settled and commanded the fixture in terms of dominating possession.
But the visitors remained limited in the final third, with Almunia relatively untested throughout, and they were caught on the break on occasions.
Immediately after Arfield bent an effort wide from the angle of the penalty area, Watford raced to the other end as Deeney dispossessed Mee only to produce a pass that was behind Ranegie and too short for McGugan.
The Clarets were patient and calculated, working the ball effectively, and the travelling fans were on their feet as the ball fell to Kightly deep inside the area but the winger slammed the ball in to the side-netting.
At that point Dyche opted to replace Treacy with Ross Wallace, and after the substitute wasted a well positioned free-kick the home side almost doubled their advantage.
Abdi’s cutting pass found Anya in behind Mee and the Scot’s pass across the face of goal was swept clear by Chris Baird as McGugan looked to pounce at the back post. Moments later, Heaton plunged to his left to save McGugan’[s header from Daniel Tozser’s cross.
Both managers then made changes, with Ranegie replaced by Davide Faraoni for the hosts and Brian Stock introduced at the expense of David Jones for the Clarets.
With just over 10 minutes of the clash remaining, Almunia made an exceptional save to preserve his side’s lead when the Spaniard sprung to his left to pluck Mee’s header from Kightly’s delivery out of the top corner.
However, with Burnley committing men forward they were susceptible to being carved open on the break. Watford stretched the visiting defence well with Abdi robbing Stock high upfield and threading a pass in to Anya who rounded Heaton only to see his effort hacked off the line by Baird.
Edgar flicked wide from Kightly’s centre as the Clarets responded, before Arfield claimed his eighth goal of the campaign.
Baird fed the ball in to the feet of Arfield and the midfielder turned instinctively on the edge of the box before tucking the ball in to the corner, grazing the fingertips of Almunia in the process.
While the goal sparked delirium among the travelling support, Arield and company ran to the dugout to share the celebrations with the remainder of the squad - which included youngsters Steven Hewitt and Jason Gilchrist.
Albert Riera’s introduction, for McGugan, and a Deeney effort that slid wide of the far post were the only chances of note as the game petered out.
The Clarets now have a 10 point advantage with six games remaining, with the first of those against Barnsley at Oakwell on Tuesday evening.