THE game is almost up.
Argyle struggled to find form and energy in a game head coach Paul Mariner had described as must-win if we are to remain in the Championship.
A gruelling schedule over the last six weeks and almost eight months battling against the drop in the end proved too much on a baking day in Watford.
Heidar Helguson's simple goal five minutes into the second-half proved the difference to the score-line, but the Hornets looked stronger throughout and their survival hopes remain very much alive. Sadly, with three games to go and seven points now separating the two sides, it will probably be at Argyle's expense.
Mariner made two changes from the Easter Monday defeat to Middlesbrough. Alan Judge stepped aside to allow stand-in skipper Karl Duguid to take his place on the right of Argyle's midfield.
Duguid's vacated spot at right-back went to fit-again Richard Eckersley after the man on loan from Burnley recovered from an ankle injury sustained in the March loss to Scunthorpe.
The inclusion of Duguid in midfield allowed Mariner to add steel to an engine room still missing the services of captain Carl Fletcher with a gashed knee. The other change was a recall for the flying Yala Bolasie in place of young Joe Mason on the left wing.
Watford boss Malky Mackay had to contend with a cruel spate of injuries and suspensions in selecting his team. Jon Harley and Henri Lansbury both absent for falling foul of the law, while Tom Cleverley, Will Buckley and Lloyd Doyley were stuck in the treatment room.
Mackay drafted in Stephen McGinn, Ross Jenkins, American Jay DeMerit and Icelandic striker Helguson, who took his place alongside Danny Graham in a more attacking Watford team from the one that battled out a brave 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion five days ago, when the ten-man Hornets were denied victory by an injury-time equaliser.
There was one other change prior to kick-off, with referee Colin Webster picking up an injury in the warm-up. Assistant Warren Atkin therefore took the whistle for a daunting task in a massive match.
Chris Clark was the first to loose off a shot in anger, seizing on a hurried clearance by Dale Bennett to lash a grasscutter wide of Scott Loach's right-hand post. The Watford response came from an ambitious long-range drive by Jenkins that continued rising well after flying over David Stockdale's crossbar.
Jamie Mackie also scythed one over from a tight angle but, in truth, it was a nervy opening from both sides in the beautiful sunshine of an April afternoon in Hertfordshire.
If there was a side that had settled quicker in the tense environment, it was arguably the Pilgrims. Réda Johnson and Bondz N'Gala looked comfortable at the back and Mackie, as always, was stretching the opposition with his customary darts down the channels.
The scruffy start was understandable, given the magnitude of the occasion, but the home side gradually began to exert influence through the midfield experience of John Eustace and the willing runs of Graham and Helguson.
Argyle's subsiding threat was given a lift by Damien Johnson's out-swinging corner that was met by a late run from Bolasie, although the final header looped harmlessly over.
Watford, however, were now looking the strongest team, and poor Pilgrim defending from a pump forward by Bennett gave Jenkins time to measure up a shot from 20 yards.
Although the midfielder struggled to judge the bouncing ball, his half-volley bounced fiercely off the lush turf and beyond the despairing grasp of Stockdale, but, thankfully, the post rescued Argyle from losing the first goal that is so often crucial in tight Championship encounters.
The disjointed nature of the game continued towards the half-time interval. Damien Johnson blocked a Jenkins volley from a corner but it was a rare victory for Argyle's midfield, an area where the Hornets were winning too many individual battles.
Watford's menace was growing, and Helguson skipped past Onismor Bhasera to square a low cross for Don Cowie, who squeezed out a low shot which Stockdale was delighted to watch dribble wide.
Pressure was relieved by a succession of corners but Watford repelled the minimal threat with ease. In a strangely flat performance, the Greens were pleased to hear the half-time whistle. Mariner and his assistant John Carver desperately needed to fire up their troops for a vital 45 minutes.
The scant positive for Argyle was a 0-0 score-line at the break but the performance was a long way below what has been produced in recent weeks.
Improvement did not seem forthcoming in the opening minute of the second period, as Adrian Mariappa floated over a cross for Eustace, who headed low to Stockdale's right. Mercifully, the effort lacked genuine power and Argyle's in-form 'keeper was able to claw the ball to safety.
Helguson then missed the chance of the afternoon. Controlling a free-kick from Cowie, the Icelandic forward somehow scooped his shot over from just six yards with the Argyle defence statuesque.
However, Pilgrim luck finally ran out on 50 minutes. A deep cross by Cowie saw Eustace beat Stockdale to the ball. Eckersley was covering on the goal-line to nod the ball away but Helguson gobbled up the rebound to tap the Hornets into a deserved lead.
Within two minutes, Helguson had Stockdale scrambling to gather the loose ball after another Cowie cross had thrown the Argyle defence into a state of panicked confusion.
The Green lift finally came from Bradley Wright-Phillips muscling his way past DeMerit and rifling a powerful drive inches wide. Argyle desperately needed a catalyst and the cause was helped by the sensational support given by the raucous Green Army.
The time for change had arrived. Bolasie and Eckersley made way for Judge and Mason, as Mariner looked for a way to inspire his jaded troops.
Sadly, hope was fading with each passing minute, and Watford looked far more likely to add to their lead than Argyle find a precious equaliser. Mackie and his comrades continued to work tirelessly but a season of seemingly constant pressure was taking its heavy toll.
The Watford door remained tightly shut and, although still mathematically possible, Argyle's survival hopes has now almost entered miracle territory.
Watford (4-4-2): 1 Scott Loach; 2 Adrian Mariappa, 6 Jay DeMerit (capt), 17 Dale Bennett, 33 Lee Hodson; 8 Stephen McGinn, 28 John Eustace, 14 Ross Jenkins (18 Will Hoskins 89), 7 Don Cowie; 10 Danny Graham (24 Martin Taylor 90), 11 Heidar Helguson (19 Liam Henderson 78). Substitutes (not used): 16 Richard Lee (gk), 26 Ryan Noble, 29 Michael Bryan, 34 Eddie Oshodi.
Booked: Henderson 90
Argyle (4-4-2): 21 David Stockdale; 23 Richard Eckersley (25 Alan Judge 68), 29 Bondz N'Gala, 22 Réda Johnson, 35 Onismor Bhasera (33 Kenny Cooper 89); 2 Karl Duguid (capt), 6 Chris Clark, 7 Damien Johnson, 36 Yala Bolasie (32 Joe Mason 68); 8 Jamie Mackie, 10 Bradley Wright-Phillips. Substitutes (not used): 1 Romain Larrieu (gk), 14 Rory Fallon, 15 Chris Barker, 31 Yoann Folly.
Booked: Mackie 55
Referee: Warren Atkin (West Sussex).
Attendance: 14,246 (1,116 away).