A penalty by Wilfred Zaha in the first half was enough to seal Watford’s return to the Sky Bet Championship.
Story of the match
After five consecutive defeats, including two late capitulations from winning positions against Brentford and Burnley, Watford fans travelled more in habit than hope.
Former Crystal Palace manager, Hodgson made four changes to the Watford starting line-up from a week ago with Edo Kayembe, Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley and Joshua King return to the side. There was no place in the squad for Joao Pedro (groin injury), Juraj Kucka (knee injury) and Imrân Louza (knee injury) as Christian Kabasele dropped to the bench.
With European qualification out of sight and safe from Premier League relegation, Crystal Palace were consigned to mid-table but welcomed Watford in a buoyant mood after a last minute winner away to Southampton last week.
After a short delay caused by a spectacular but excessive balloon display and clean-up, the game eventually got underway and the hosts, roared on by a boisterous home support, started the stronger.
Conor Gallagher won a corner in the fourth minute and a quick one-two between Wilfred Zaha and Michael Olise saw the latter find Marc Guèhi at the back post. The Eagles defender was unable to keep his header down as a golden chance from three yards went begging.
Two minutes later and Watford were nearly their own worst enemy.
Kayembe was caught in possession in Watford’s final third. Olise picked up the ball as the Hornets defence backed off and invited the shot. Olise snatched at the chance as he fired over from the edge of the box.
The game fell into attack and defence as Crystal Palace dominated possession and the Eagles eventually took the lead in the 28th minute.
A deep cross into the back post deceived Kamara and found the head of Olise who looked to put the ball back across the goal. The header struck the outstretched arm of Kamara who felt he had been pushed in the build-up but Referee, Graham Scott did not hesitate in pointing to the spot.
A short VAR induced delay could not prevent Zaha from scoring the penalty, sending Ben Foster the wrong way to send the Palace fans into a rendition of “he’s sending you down, Wilfred Zaha, he’s sending you down”.
In the 44th minute, the Eagles went close to extending their lead.
A corner by Eberechi Eze found Guèhi eight yards out who directed a forceful header on goal to Foster’s right. The Watford goalkeeper reacted quickly to stick a hand out and tip the ball wide.
In added time, the hosts created one more chance as Olise forced a finger tip save by Foster from a tight angle in what proved to be the final action of a dominant half by Crystal Palace.
The second half resembled pre-season for the opening 15 minutes as neither side showed any sense of urgency until Odsonne Édouard sparked it into life.
In the 62nd minute, the Palace striker danced through the Watford defence and fizzed an effort through Foster’s legs. It was an audacious effort from a tight angle that rebounded off the far post, much to the relief of the visitors.
The relief didn’t last long as things went from bad to worse for Watford.
In the 68th minute, Kamara received a second yellow card for an inauspicious and needless foul on the byline as Olise skipped past him.
Watford’s first chance came in added time as Dennis sprinted down a pass by the corner flag and swung a cross into Ismaila Sarr. Indicative of his performance across the 90 minutes, the Watford striker missed the ball as a wonderful chance for an equaliser went begging.
The hosts nearly punished Watford immediately as substitute Jeffrey Schlupp tested Foster from 12 yards but the goalkeeper did well once more to keep the score to one.
It proved, however, to be enough, as Watford’s defeat confirmed their relegation from the Premier League with a tepid display in south London.
Where do Watford go from here?
With the Hornets Premier League relegation inevitable weeks ago, the Hornets hierarchy have already been busy preparing for next season.
Roy Hodgson’s appointment at the helm was always a short-term ‘fix’ and as Watford prepare for life in the second tier, the club are learning from past failures in their search for a more sustainable approach to recruitment.
Watford are looking for a home-grown Head Coach and former player, John Eustace is top of a five-man shortlist.
The former Kidderminster Harriers manager and current QPR coach is part of Mark Warburton’s backroom staff and well-liked in West London by peers and players but whilst Eustace has experience of working in England there are significant question marks about his coaching experience and he may decide that Watford is too much of a project so early in his career.
A busy transfer window ahead
With Sarr and Dennis linked with moves away from Vicarage Road, Watford will likely cash in on their young starlets to cushion the financial blow of relegation.
The Hornets may also lose Ben Foster to the MLS, Daniel Bachmann to Europe, Sissoko and Kabasele to pastures new.
That leaves Watford with Pedro and King in attack and requiring reinforcements if they are to challenge for Sky Bet Championship promotion next season.
Watford require a re-build and on today’s performance, it can’t come soon enough.
With a pass success rate of 67% and less than 30% possession insider the opening hour, Watford were chasing shadows all afternoon, feigning interest. This was perhaps best epitomised by Sarr, who touched the ball 22 times over the 90 minutes.
Watford were officially relegated this afternoon but in truth, this squad was never good enough to avoid relegation. It was devoid of leadership, energy and resilience. All qualities necessary in the Championship.
As the saying goes, he who laughs last, laughs longest and with a known dislike of the Hertfordshire side after numerous confrontations – most memorably, the mascot incident in 2018 – Zaha enjoyed confirming Watford’s relegation today.
With 51 touches, a pass success rate of 90%, 3 key passes, 3 successful dribbles and a goal, Zaha was in electric form as he took the game to the Hornets and capitalised on a frail defence.
Zaha wanted to ball to feet at every opportunity, dictated the tempo from the left wing and created multiple chances.
His penalty was the cherry on top of a typical Zaha performance and it will be one that he will no doubt cherish alongside the play-off final victory in 2013.