Crystal Palace made the most of their chances in an even affair in South London as the Eagles moved within four points of the European places and left the Hornets languishing just above the relegation zone.
Story of the match
Coming into today’s game, Crystal Palace fans had not seen their side beat Watford home or away since December 2017, 117 weeks ago. They didn’t have to wait any longer.
After being winless in eight, Palace had bounced back with two consecutive victories at the end of February, sitting comfortably in mid-table with 36 points and feint hopes of a European challenge.
Former Udinese coach Roy Hodgson named an unchanged side to that which won away to Brighton & Hove Albion last weekend, with his side setting-up in a familiar 4-3-3 formation.
Watford found themselves sitting precariously above the relegation zone on goal difference coming into the game at Selhurst Park. However, following the miraculous victory over the Premier League champions-elect Liverpool last week, Nigel Pearson made only one change to the starting line-up with Roberto Pereyra coming in for the injured Gerard Deulofeu.
The game started evenly, with both sides slowly growing into the game. It took until the 14th minute for the first goal-scoring chance.
After Troy Deeney harried the Palace defence deep in the Eagles’ half, Abdoulaye Doucoure picked up a loose clearance.
Dancing his way through the box, Doucoure forced Vicente Guaita into a smart save at the front post but the ball rebounded to Ismaila Sarr. Full of confidence after his brace last weekend, Sarr fired off a shot quickly from a tight angle, which was deflected wide for a Watford corner.
Hunting in packs of three, Watford continued to press for the opening goal.
Will Hughes and Sarr caused problems for the Eagles as Watford controlled possession and overwhelmed the Crystal Palace midfield. Selhurst Park was stunned into silence.
It was, however, the hosts who took the lead against the run of play with their first shot on target and just under 30 minutes on the clock.
After swift interplay between Zaha, Christian Benteke and James McArthur, the ball made its way across the Watford box to Jordan Ayew. Taking only two touches to create a rare yard of space, Ayew rifled a strike into the top right corner, beyond the helpless Ben Foster, for his fourth career goal against the Hornets and eighth of the season.
It was Crystal Palace’s first goal from open play in the first half of a home league game this season and it brought Selhurst Park to life.
Suddenly Watford had their backs up against the wall but neither side were able to manufacture another goal-scoring chance before the half-time whistle.
The second half started much the same as the first, with neither side creating anything of note, apart from a brief coming together between Zaha and Etienne Capoue that provoked a VAR check for violent conduct from the Watford midfielder. Capoue escaped with a yellow card but the game grew more hostile after that.
With 56 minutes on the clock, Zaha twisted the Watford defence inside out as he went close for the hosts from ten yards out, but Foster was equal to it, saving smartly with his feet.
Watford countered quickly. More good defensive work from Deeney enabled Hughes to set up Pereyra on the edge of the Crystal Palace box, but the ball harmlessly sailed into the grateful arms of Guaita.
Guaita had to be more alert eight minutes later as Deeney tried his luck from 20 yards. A fizzing shot looked destined for the top right corner of the net, but Guaita athletically got a fingertip to the ball to tip it over the bar.
Guaita was again scrambling across his goal-line two minutes later as he tipped wide a looping Doucoure header from 12 yards. Watford were again on top but couldn’t find a way through the Palace defence.
Crystal Palace came back at their visitors. A deep free-kick was flicked on by Scott Dann to Benteke at the back-post. The Eagles’ frontman attempted an acrobat over-head kick, but could only find the side-netting.
An animated Nigel Pearson pushed his side forward, bringing on Danny Welbeck, Andre Gray and Ignacio Pussetto with time running out but Watford struggled to break down the resolute Crystal Palace defence.
Watford could have had an additional 90 minutes and still failed to score as defeat left Watford on the edge of the relegation zone, truly mired in the mix and looking nervously over their shoulder.
Takeaways from the match
The Same Old Attacking Story
The stats reflecting Watford’s troubles in front of goal are well-known.
Watford have failed to score in a league-high 13 Premier League games this season and have scored only 27 times. The Hornets have scored almost nine fewer goals than expected, the biggest negative difference in the league.
However, recent form has been more positive. Troy Deeney had been directly involved in eight goals in his last 11 Premier League games before day (six goals, two assists), though the Watford captain hasn't scored in consecutive league matches since March 2018.
Today, Watford huffed and puffed. Guaita was forced into two outstanding saves, but Watford were unable to find the all-important goal, leaving them with only one win in seven league games.
With 61 yellow cards and 3 red cards in the league thus far, Watford moved second in the (lack of) discipline table behind Arsenal, with Tottenham Hotspur close behind.
Today, the Hornets again struggled to keep their cool, and Crystal Palace exploited the hot-headed nature of Pearson’s side. Watford committed 16 fouls and picked up another four yellow cards today.
Zaha, so often the pantomime villain against Watford, was at his confrontational best, successfully antagonising Capoue and Doucoure and disrupting their rhythm.
Watford were never allowed to find their composure and, whilst at times it looked to be boiling over, Crystal Palace managed the game appropriately for their needs. It was the host’s third 1-0 victory in a role. Watford were masters of their own destruction.
Wilfred Zaha vs Kiko Femenia
Since Pearson was appointed Watford manager in December, Femenia had played in only one defeat before today, away to Liverpool at Anfield.
Femenia had been instrumental in four victories over Manchester United, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and at home to Liverpool in that time.
With Femenia in the side, Watford had conceded only four goals since Pearson joined in December, with a goal difference of +7.
After nearly two months out, Watford’s right back, Kiko Femenia returned to the side last week following injury. He made an instant impact as he supported Ismaila Sarr down the right in the 3-0 victory of Liverpool.
Femenia was tested against Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, he didn’t blink. Today, against Zaha, he did.
Up against Zaha, so often a thorn in his opponent’s side, Femenia wasn’t sure whether to go forward and leave space in behind, or sit deep. For once, he was caught in two minds.
Femenia wasn’t alone.
In attack, Watford didn’t seem sure of what they were trying to do in front of goal and were again wasteful in attacking positions.
After the game, Nigel Pearson failed to contain his frustration: “We missed opportunities… we were indecisive in front of goal… we rue those missed chances… we did enough in terms of performance to go away with at least a point… we’ve got to take our chances.”
However, Pearson was in an equally reflective mood and confident of his side’s chances of survival: “I know what we are capable of… I know we’ve got goals in us, i know we’re a competitive side…
When you’re in a relegation battle, you’ve got to accept it doesn’t happen very often that you can replicate your best performance week in, week out… we just have to find that way that performances are more often than not, favourable.”
With games at home to Leicester and Southampton, and away to Burnley and Chelsea to come in the next five weeks, Watford will be up against it in their bid to stay in the Premier League, however, if they can replicate the performance against Liverpool, they are assured safety.