Whenever the Hornets and the Eagles clash, there is always something on the line. Whether it’s promotion to the Premier League, vital points in order to remain in the top tier, or simply some local bragging rights, there’s always something at stake.
Palace arrived at Vicarage Road five points clear of 18th place Southampton, hoping to move further away from danger with the Saints not playing due to FA Cup commitments. Watford, on the other hand, came into the game pretty much safe from relegation, albeit three shy of the fabled 40 points mark. Either side could help cement their place in the league for another season with three valuable points.Embed from Getty Images
Watford – 442 – Karnezis, Mariappa, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas, Hughes (Gray 79’), Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra (Richarlison 55’), Deeney, Okaka (Femenía 70’)
Crystal Palace – 442 – Hennessey, van Aanholt, Sakho, Tomkins, Ward, Loftus-Cheek, Cabaye, Milivojević, McArthur (Benteke 81’), Zaha, Townsend
Attendance – 20,401
You could have been mistaken for thinking which of the teams were in the midst of a relegation battle, and who was already sipping drinks on their summer holidays, as Watford came flying straight out of the gates. They were winning all the 50/50 challenges, forcing mistakes from the Palace defenders, creating chances to score, and ultimately putting on a display that their manager, Javi Gracia, described as “one of the best first halves we have played all season”.
One standout opportunity was a headed chance from the big forward Okaka. Playing the ball out to his strike partner Deeney, Okaka surged into the box to meet his captain’s first time cross with a header that left Hennessey statuesque in the goal. It looked destined to loop into the top corner, but he could only watch it rebound off the upright of the post and crossbar, then cleared away by McArthur for a Watford corner.Embed from Getty Images
Watford had several more chances during the half, having 11 shots at the visitors’ goal, although they almost took the lead through the boot of a Palace defender. Okaka won an aerial duel, as he done numerous times during the half, bringing it down on his chest where a waiting Deeney would drill it across the box. Palace defender Joel Ward tried to intercept the cross and control it before it could reach the on rushing Pereyra. It had a little too much on the touch back to his keeper, and Hennessey had to make a quick save down to his right to prevent Ward from gifting the hosts with the lead.
Then came the first moment of controversy as Kabasele, who was making his first start since the end of January, appeared to bring Wilfried Zaha down inside the box. The referee, Chris Kavanagh, was having none of it, and neither were the Watford players, especially Doucouré, who ran 30 yards to confront Zaha, pushing him in the process. The Hornets midfielder might consider himself lucky to only get a talking to by the ref as he was ushered away by his teammates, having already been booked previously in the game.
During the first half the Palace players were getting “bullied, and beaten to the ball, outmuscled”, as Roy Hodgson said after the game, and something had to change in the second half or they would feel the sting of the Hornets eventually. And, as the cliché goes, it certainly was a game of two halves. Palace were much stronger after the interval, as they tried to match Watford’s intensity.Embed from Getty Images
It is clear to see that Zaha is not favoured by those in yellow, as the cries from the stands swelled for him to see a card after he clashed with Watford keeper Karnezis. The Palace forward tried to latch onto a though ball played off the chest of McArthur, but his outstretched foot caught Karnezis in the chest as he rushed out to gather the ball. As he writhed on the floor, Zaha would escape any sort of booking, much to the disgust of the Watford faithful in the stadium.
The first few minutes after the hour mark provided a couple of golden opportunities for Palace to break the deadlock. Mariappa fell for Zaha’s trickery and brought him down on the edge of the box, a freekick to Palace in a dangerous area, as in form midfielder Luka Milivojević placed the ball down. He curled his effort of the wall and looked at it flew towards the top left-hand corner, but he only managed to find the same spot on the upright that Okaka hit with his first half header. Then came the second, and most talked about, controversial moment of the game.
After a well worked build up by Palace, Zaha found himself inside the opposition box surrounded by Watford players. As he fell to the ground under another suspected challenge by Mariappa, Palace looked set to have another chance to score a goal from the penalty spot (what would have been their tenth penalty of the season). Chris Kavanagh blew his whistle, but instead of a penalty, it was for Watford and Zaha was booked for simulation, which came as a great shock to him, but a huge delight to the Watford fans in attendance as they let out the largest cheer of the whole game.Embed from Getty Images
Both sides would have a few more limited chances, none closer than a Tomkins downward header from a Cabaye corner kick, that bounced against the post, with Doucouré clearing it away before it fell to Mamadou Sakho, who had an empty net in front of him. As the clock continued to tick away you could sense the nerves growing around the ground, especially when you think that there have been 33 goals in the last 15 minutes of Premier League games involving Watford. However, this was not one of those days, as the final minutes consisted of substitutions, a smattering of yellow cards, and the game ending goalless. A fair result on reflection of the way the two halves played out, as expressed by both managers in their post-match interviews.
Both sides now move on to next week looking for those all-important points that will see them safe for another season. Watford face a Spurs side who again failed to reach a FA Cup final, and Palace welcome Europa League spot chasing Leicester City to Selhurst Park.
Written by Migtavius.
31-year-old Londoner, Crystal Palace supporter, and Team Correspondent for 90MAAT. Co-host of the FPL PopInPod. @Migtavius