Story of the match
Fewer than 20 days since Watford and Crystal Palace came together for the final pre-season fixture ahead of the new Premier League season, the old foes met once more in the Carabao EFL Cup at Vicarage Road.
The Eagles arrived in Hertfordshire looking to find form having lost away to Chelsea and laboured to a goalless draw at home to Brentford since beating a disorganised Watford side 3-1 at the beginning of the month.
New Eagles manager Patrick Viera named a strong side and made just four changes to the side that started at the weekend, with Jack Butland, James Tomkins, Jordan Ayew and Jean-Philippe Mateta coming into Viera’s favoured 4-3-3 formation.
After a disappointing defeat away to Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League only three days ago, Xisco Muñoz rang the changes for the home side with seven players coming into the starting line-up. Muñoz gave debuts to former Tottenham wing-back, Danny Rose and former Middlesborough forward, Ashley Fletcher, whilst there were rare starts for Ben Foster in goal and Francisco Sierralta.
Under clear blue skies and against the backdrop of a raucous crowd, the action did little to reflect the atmosphere with the ball stuck in midfield for much of the first half but slowly the visitors took control.
The first chance of note fell to Mateta in the 15th minute who, after muscling William Troost-Ekong off the ball, fired a shot straight at Foster from a narrow angle.
Two minutes later and Mateta was denied once more following a delicate cross from Conor Gallagher but somehow his header from a yard out looped over the bar whilst under pressure from Troost-Ekong.
Watford’s first effort came in the 26th minute as Louza found a rare modicum of space to fire high and wide from 20 yards as Butland watched on.
Palace went close again ten minutes later as Foster tipped over a header from Mateta before Tomkins rose highest from the resulting corner but couldn’t direct his header on target and that was all she wrote in the first half where Watford failed to register a single shot on target.
Muñoz brought on Emmanuel Dennis for Joshua King at the break and suddenly Watford were a team transformed as they took the game to the Eagles.
Six minutes into the half, Troost-Ekong drew an athletic save from Butland as his header from eight yards was tipped over.
The Hornets then created openings for Cucho Hernandez and Fletcher but both snatched at their efforts as Watford applied pressure on the timid Crystal Palace defence.
As Watford grew in confidence the game opened up and both managers threw caution to the wind with their substitutions.
Christian Benteke was brought on for Mateta and almost broke the deadlock in the 74th minute as he rounded Rose but his powerful strike was straight at Foster who was able to deflect the effort away.
Cheikhou Kouyate then went close less than a minute later as he fired over a loose ball inside the six yard box as Crystal Palace began to find their feet.
As the game looked destined for penalties, it was Watford who snatched victory at the death.
With just four minutes remaining of normal time Cucho Hernandez, one of the few bright sparks in the Watford performance, fired in a low cross from the left to the back post where Fletcher lunged at the ball to send it past Butland and the home fans delirious.
It proved to be the difference as Vicarage Road bounced until the final whistle, sending the Hornets through to the third round and Crystal Palace crashing out at the first time of asking.
Takeaways from the match
Rinse & Repeat for Watford
Only three days prior, Watford’s defence was torn ragged by an inspired and clinical Brighton & Hove Albion on the south coast. Tonight, they were more resolute and organised but they found little protection from their midfield who were largely absent in the opening 45 minutes.
With just 33% possession and having made only half the passes of the visitors by the hour mark, Crystal Palace attacks were met with little resistance. Instead, Watford sought to counter and transition the ball from defence to attack as direct as possible - to little effect until the introduction of Dennis.
Whilst Watford looked more threatening in the second half and entertainment value increased for the neutral, the lack of midfield control could not be disguised and it’s fast becoming a trait of this Watford side.
Cup form or cup fluke?
It wasn’t pretty, often it wasn’t even entertaining but Watford are through to the next round of the Carabao cup.
The issue is, it might just paper over the cracks as Watford were outplayed in large parts tonight - reflected by just 34% of possession over the 90 minutes but on the bright side, Muñoz’s side demonstrated that they can win ugly and that will hold them in good stead for what will inevitable be a challenging season ahead.
Cups have a habit of being salvation or a distraction, time will tell what this win means to the Hornets but a win never hurt anyone.
At 31 years old, having not made a single appearance in his last season at Tottenham and last appearing for England nearly two years ago, observers could be forgiven for thinking that his two year contract at Watford was the beginning of the end for the former Tottenham defender but tonight suggested differently.
On debut, Rose was tasked with containing Jordan Ayew and did exactly that. Ayew was elusive in the pre-season friendly against Watford only a few weeks prior but had only one shot for his 64 touches tonight, whilst his five crosses came to nothing.
Rose had little opportunity to attack but was disciplined in his defensive role and did no harm to his chances of making his Premier League debut for the Hornets sooner rather than later.