Story of the match
Coming into today’s game however, the sides had more in common than what fans would normally care to admit. Whilst their paths have diverged since their last meeting at the onset of the pandemic in March, 2020, the Eagles and Hornets have since struggled and are, once more, rebuilding their squads.
Watford have brought in no less than ten new faces to bolster the squad following promotion from the Sky Bet Championship last season whilst New Eagles manager Patrick Viera has revitalised the squad he inherited from Roy Hodgson.
Viera has already signed Marc Guéhi and Conor Gallagher from Chelsea, Joachim Andersen from Lyon, Jean-Philippe Mateta on loan from Mainz 05 and there is potentially more to come with rumours gaining pace of the imminent arrivals of Adam Armstrong from Blackburn Rovers and Arnaut Danjuma from AFC Bournemouth.
That is, however, where the similarities end.
With an abundance of riches in the likes of new signings, Emmanuel Dennis from Brugge, Imran Louza from FC Nantes, Juraj Kucka from Parma and Ashley Fletcher from Middlesbrough - to name just a few - Xisco Muñoz showed that he is still unsure of his preferred starting line-up ahead of Aston Villa in seven days time.
There was no space for Kucka, Louza, Fletcher nor skipper Troy Deeney in the starting line-up as Cucho Hernandez leading the line for the Hornets in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Ismaïla Sarr, captain Tom Cleverley and Dennis sitting behind.
In contrast, Viera named a consistent and strong starting eleven looking for their fourth win of pre-season, with Wilfred Zaha, Mateta and Jordan Ayew forming a front three in a preferred 4-3-3 formation for Crystal Palace.
The game started at a brisk pace with Eagles fans in good voice and tackles flying in. Ayew, in particular, was lucky to escape a card after a brash tackle in the opening minute.
Chances, however, were few and far between in the opening exchanges, with the only real chance of note falling to Zaha six yards out after a clever cross on the edge of the box from James McArthur.
In true pre-season fashion, Zaha failed to live up to the assist by completely missing the ball as it drifted out for a goal-kick.
The home side dominated possession in the opening period and Watford had to wait until the 24th minute for their first sight of goal with Peter Etebo, on loan from Stoke City, heading over a Cleverley corner from 12 yards.
In rather farcical fashion Crystal Palace punished Watford four minutes later through that familiar foe, Zaha.
Zaha found himself one-on-one with another new Watford signing, Danny Rose in the box. Rose kicked the ball out for a corner from under the feet of Zaha, only for the Palace talisman to go to ground.
Everyone in the ground, bar Zaha and a handful of excitable home fans, seemed equally quizzical as the whistle was blown for a penalty but up stepped Zaha to score past Daniel Bachmann from the spot.
The goal sparked the Hornets into life after that.
Sarr took the game to the Eagles defence and caused Guéhi a torrid time for the remainder of the half but it was Dennis and Hernandez that went closest to equalising for Watford.
In the 38th minute Dennis forced Vincente Guaita into a diving save from 25 yards with a curling free-kick effort that was destined for the top corner. Seconds later, from the resulting corner, Hernandez then headed against the post with Guaita well beaten in what proved to be the final chance of the half.
Much like the first, Crystal Palace started the stronger of the sides in the second half with a beautifully worked move between Jairo Riedewald and Jeffrey Schlupp in the 48th minute seeing the latter flash a ball across the six yard box, agonisingly beyond a lunging Ayew.
The early dominance told only six minutes later as the Eagles extended their lead.
Zaha, so often the pantomime villain in this fixture, showed his brilliance and why he is such a fan favourite in SW25 as he danced past the Watford defence in the 54th minute. Bachmann was off his line quickly but Zaha remained composed and finished calmly into the bottom corner for his and Crystal Palace’s second of the game.
Crystal Palace went close to extending their lead further through chances for Mateta and academy graduate, Reece Hannam but it was Watford who grabbed the next goal in fortuitous fashion.
Having only been on the pitch for three minutes, Deeney crossed into the six yard box and found the head of a retreating Christian Benteke, also a recent introduction. Benteke was unable to get full contact on the ball, instead heading past a helpless Guaita to bring Watford back into the game.
Benteke did manage to score at the right end of the pitch three minutes later, heading in a deep corner as Deeney and Bachmann got tied up on the line, only to see the ball nestle in the net off the post in what summed up a disorganised Watford performance.
Takeaways from the match
The gaping hole of Will Hughes
Absent from the match day squad and seemingly close to departing Watford, the lack of Will Hughes in the Hornets midfield was tangible today.
Having declined a five-year deal to stay at Vicarage Road and with Burnley and Palace circling, the hole Hughes has left in the Watford middle seemed like a chasm at times today.
Since his arrival in 2017, Hughes has been the disrupter in defence and the always available in attack. When the opposition need slowing down, a forward pass isn’t on, or the attack needs to switch, Hughes is the lynchpin. Today, there was no Hughes, there was no lynchpin.
On this performance, ff Watford are to avoid relegation this season they will need to resolve Hughes’ future or find a viable alternative.
Time not on the side of Watford
Whilst pre-season matches should never be given too much weight as an indicator of performance for the season ahead, today was telling in many ways.
The number of new faces in the starting line-up, the absence of control and creativity in midfield, the lack of holding midfielder, the dearth of speed in defence are all causes for concern for Xisco Muñoz and, unfortunately for Watford, the Premier League is only a week away.
Contrast that with the home side who looked organised, disciplined and clinical, Watford could be in for a tough season.
Whilst the absence of Will Hughes stood out, Kiko Femenia’s introduction in the 64th minute similarly demonstrated how important he is to this Watford side.
Marauding down the right wing to support Sarr and force the hosts to sit further back, Femenia’s instinct to attack and pace in defence emphasises the deficit of Jeremy Ngakia.
Femenia is, and was once more today, a step ahead of his defensive peers - preventing counter-attacks with his reading of the game and ably contributing in attack with his eagerness to get forward and cross the ball into the box.
Watford, however, cannot rely on just one or two players to perform and Xisco Muñoz will need to get this team firing quickly if they are to negotiate the coming season safely.