Crystal Palace used to deliver in the big games – but that isn’t the case now

WATFORD 2
Capoue 27 Gray 79
CRYSTAL PALACE 1
Batshuayi 62
BY MATT WOOSNAM AT VICARAGE ROAD

Rivalries, derby games and important matches – they all require a degree of edginess, that element of skullduggery and above all else, strong leadership. In the FA Cup, one of the most likely sources of silverware for clubs outside the Premier League’s big six, that can be multiplied several times.

A quarter-final between Watford and Crystal Palace is unlikely to whet the appetite for neutrals. And, on the face of it, animosity would be hard to find. But clashes between these two sides have become something more. There is history in this competition in recent years. Short of a rivalry, but more than just another game. It stems back to the Championship play-off final in 2013, where Wilfried Zaha tricked Marco Cassetti into bringing him down inside the penalty area and former Hornet Kevin Phillips converted the penalty to win promotion, before the FA Cup semi-final in 2016 when Connor Wickham’s header stunned Watford. In between, the Hertfordshire club’s hatred of Zaha has festered unabated. In return, the Palace fans would taunt their opponents “did you cry at Wembley?”

Watford’s Troy Deeney (left) and Crystal Palace’s James Tomkins battle for the ball

There would be no such haranguing this time, Saturday was when Watford finally got their revenge. Roy Hodgson’s side were meek, tame, lacking in quality, passion, energy and desire. Forgivable you might suggest for a top-flight clash, but with the chance of another Wembley appearance and a step closer to a final which still remains the pinnacle of English football for many, it may take some time for the rifts which were exposed here to heal as Andre Gray prodded home a winning goal from Gerard Deulofeu’s cross – just two minutes after replacing Will Hughes.

Crystal Palace’s Jeffrey Schlupp (left) and Watford’s Will Hughes.

Palace had gone behind when Vicente Guaita flapped at a corner and the ball fell to Etienne Capoue to guide into an unguarded net. The Spanish goalkeeper had a promising start to his Eagles career, but his weaknesses were exposed here as he either remained rooted to his line, or came rushing out for crosses which he got nowhere near.

Michy Batshuayi had cut a lonely figure up front by himself in a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation which stifled almost all of the Eagles’ creativity, but in the second half he began to run the channels and create some semblance of attacking threat by himself. James McArthur was not about to do it, and Andros Townsend was hopelessly ineffective on the left – talk of an England call-up was undeniably premature and his limitations also became apparent here. Removed of the opportunity to run down the wing, cut back and whip in a cross with his left foot, he failed to pull his side forwards.

Crystal Palace’s Michy Batshuayi (right) scores his side’s first goal of the game

But Batshuayi would, out of nowhere, haul them level. Adrian Mariappa failed to clear adequately and the Belgian, who frequently harried the Watford defence, stole the ball, took two touches and rifled an unstoppable shot beyond Heurelho Gomes.
The atmosphere inside Vicarage Road changed markedly. Prior to the match, Palace were frustrated that they were limited to the minimum ticket allocation with the Vicarage Road End laying half empty due to segregation issues preventing the usual away section from being used. The Hornets declined to issue more than the allotted minimum.

Indeed, they also prevented the Holmesdale Fanatics from entering with a drum and netted off the middle of the stand so as to divide the away section in two. Somewhat petty, but designed to give the hosts as much of an advantage as possible. The group was, ultimately able to bring their drum, and flares, into the ground.

Crystal Palace’s Cheikhou Kouyate (right) and Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu .

The atmosphere that had been relatively flat for the majority of the game, may have burst into life, but only for a short period. Palace’s play began to improve.

When they had chances, they didn’t take them. Earlier in the second half, Aaron Wan-Bissaka did well down the right and played an excellent chipped ball into the area, but Max Meyer failed to make a clean connection and Gomes was able to gather comfortably. The German’s efforts were fruitless, and will continue to be unless he has options ahead of him. That would involve a significant shift in style from his manager, which will not be forthcoming.

The Eagles’ season has been defined by stuttering. This was their best chance to turn it from a mediocre campaign into one worth celebrating, but the familiar problems were there. Too narrow, particularly without the injured Zaha, they were also poor, slow, and there was no movement or ingenuity.

Watford’s Andre Gray (left) scores his side’s second goal of the game

Against teams of a similar standing, their record is poor. Watford have now beaten Palace three times this season, Brighton have done the double, West Ham have taken four points, they failed to beat Cardiff at home.

That may not in itself bear relevance to an FA Cup defeat, but Hodgson has been out-thought in those games. The football has too often been dull and dreary as well as ineffective, just as it was in this clash.

Once upon a time, Palace knew how to win the important games – with or without attractive football. There was a core of players who knew what it meant, and fought all the way. For now at least, that appears to have been lost, and with it, Palace are losing their way, trundling along treading water more than ever.

Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1): Guaita 4, Wan-Bissaka 8, Tomkins 6, Kelly 5, Schlupp 5, Milivojevic 4, Kouyate 4, McArthur 6 (Benteke 84), Meyer 4, Townsend 5, Batshuayi 6. Not used: Hennessey, Ward, Woods, Riedewald, Ayew, Wickham.

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