CRYSTAL PALACE 0
BY SAM SMITH AT VICARAGE ROAD
Crystal Palace and Watford are not arch-rivals but a strong, mutual dislike has been simmering almost ever since the moment Marco Cassetti felled Wilfried Zaha inside the Wembley penalty area in May 2013.
Kevin Phillips dispatched the resultant spot-kick in that Championship play-off final to earn the Eagles a place in the Premier League for the first time in nine years.
Watford would follow Palace into the top-flight two years later and, ever since, this fixture has earned itself a reputation for its niggly nature and moments of pure petulance. That theme was evident again at Vicarage Road, although no recent meeting has been so absent of genuine quality than this one.
This game was never truly allowed to flow.
It almost become a contest to see who could commit the most fouls and which one would be the most cynical.
Referee Martin Atkinson – coincidentally the referee who also awarded that play-off final penalty – gave 31 free-kicks. That is more than one foul every three minutes.
There were three matches between these two clubs last season.
When Palace visited Watford in August 2018, there were 25 fouls, including when Etienne Capoue raked his studs down the achilles of Zaha inside five minutes but received only a yellow card. In the reverse fixture, there were 22 fouls.
March’s FA Cup quarter-final tie produced 20 fouls. That was a comparatively friendly affair but it still meant a free-kick was awarded every four minutes in their three meetings.
Watford won 2-1 in each of those games, and so at least the Eagles ended a run of defeats against a side who find themselves bottom of the Premier League – but boss Roy Hodgson can hardly be pleased with what his side produced.
James McArthur should have done better than to volley wide inside the opening 10 minutes. The midfielder had been given too much space to the left of the Watford penalty area but miscued his first-time effort when he should have taken a touch before firing towards goal.
It was not until 79 minutes that Palace truly threatened again. Jordan Ayew beat Adam Masina with a piece of trickery before rifling a shot just over the crossbar.
By then, Hodgson’s side should have been behind. Gary Cahill twice made goal-saving interceptions to prevent Ismaila Sarr tapping into an empty net. Vicente Guaita made three very good saves in the second half.
There were several flashpoints when it seemed tempers might boil over. Zaha and Capoue received the almost obligatory yellow card they both seem to earn each time they appear in this fixture. Zaha’s was harsh – he had been mischievously tripped by Christian Kabasele after losing possession but Atkinson adjudged the Ivorian to have been the aggressor.
There have been two red cards in this fixture since Watford’s promotion in 2015, and there were opportunities for Atkinson to produce a third. Kiko Femenia had only been booked mere minutes before he pulled back Zaha but the 48-year-old was in a lenient mood.
Another tussle between the two then led to Zaha lifting his foot up and towards the face of the Spaniard. It can be presumed that Atkinson’s view was obstructed but VAR would almost certainly have intervened had the 27-year-old’s boot made contact with Femenia.
It was after this fixture last season that Hornets captain Troy Deeney admitted Watford rotate who fouls Zaha to better ensure they avoid the same player impeding the Ivorian and thus being sent off.
That tactic seemed to be deployed again here, with both Femenia and Capoue receiving yellow cards for fouls on Zaha.
The Palace winger was fouled six times in total. There was also a strong challenge by Craig Cathcart on Luka Milivojevic and then a much more cynical stopping of Gerard Deulofeu by James Tomkins. Both earned yellow cards.
It is the kind of robust nature that the Eagles will need to show once again when their true rivals Brighton visit Selhurst Park next week. However, they must also marry that with far better quality in the final third.
Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 7, Kelly 6, Tomkins 6, Cahill 8, Schlupp 6 (Riedewald 6 45), McArthur 7, Milivojevic 6, Kouyate 6 (McCarthy 83), Townsend 5 (Benteke 73), Ayew 5, Zaha 6. Not used: Hennessey, Dann, Camarasa, Wickham.