On Tuesday evening my office Christmas party was taking place. I work for a very small company, so all day there was a subtle build-up with people coming in wearing party clothes and the box of presents for Secret Santa filling up. Late afternoon, we had a company meeting to reflect on the achievements of the year and everyone was in party mood as they contemplated an evening of celebration. Meanwhile, I was heading to Selhurst Park.
There had been a late decision by our pre-match party to forego a trip to the pub we usually frequent for an establishment closer to the ground. This meant that, despite a meeting that finished just before 6pm, I was able to join them in plenty of time for a couple of pints and a plate of mixed pierogies, which were absolutely delicious. From there it was a short walk to the ground to take our “seats”. I do love Selhurst Park but, due to the people standing in front of me, spend a lot of the game with no view of the play, particularly at the far end on our side of the pitch. I comfort myself with the fact that the lack of view is compensated by an increase in atmosphere. But it doesn’t do my nerves any good when something crucial is happening and I am relying on the reactions of the crowd to tell me whether it is good or bad from a Watford perspective.
Team news was that Silva had made two changes bringing Prödl and Holebas in for the suspended Zeegelaar and Pereyra. So, the starting line-up was Gomes; Mariappa, Prödl, Kabasele, Janmaat, Cleverley, Doucouré, Holebas; Carrillo, Richarlison; Deeney. Palace’s starting XI included former (very short-term) loanee, Townsend. But, as on Saturday, the most significant ex-Watford connection was in the dug-out in the person of the utterly wonderful Ray Lewington.
There was applause before the game for Julian Speroni, who was making his 400th appearance for Palace. I was gratified that I wasn’t the only Watford fan to applaud him as I have always liked Speroni.
The game started brilliantly for the Hornets as Richarlison crossed for Janmaat to head home to give the visitors the lead in the third minute. The Dutchman threatened the Palace goal again soon after, but his cross was too close to Speroni. Watford looked sure to score their second on 10 minutes after Carrillo found Richarlison, but the shot was headed off the line by Tomkins.
There was some concern for the young Brazilian soon after following a clash of heads with Deeney, but nobody had pointed a gun at him, so he was fine to continue. Palace’s first shot of the game came from Fosu-Mensah whose effort was wide of the near post. Watford had another decent chance to increase their lead, but Janmaat’s shot was deflected for a corner that was delivered straight to Speroni. Richarlison impressed again, nipping in to the box before shooting just wide. Palace then launched a counter-attack that finished with a shot from distance from Townsend that was well over the bar. Janmaat was impressing in both boxes after meeting a cross from Cabaye with a good defensive header. The resulting corner was headed wide by Dann. I was just complaining about Doucouré, who never gives the ball away, giving a lie to that statement when a Palace player did the same, Deeney picked up the loose ball and played it out to Richarlison who played a return pass to Troy who somehow fashioned a miss from a yard out, leaving the Watford fans holding their heads in disbelief.
The travelling Hornets had been baiting Zaha for most of the game and, as he was challenged while running into the box, a voice near me said that he would go down. He did, the referee waved play on and, when he finally got back to his feet, he was giving Gomes a mouthful, presumably as the Watford keeper had called him out for his theatrics. Palace had a half chance as a free kick was headed goalwards by Dann, but Gomes was able to gather. The home side were presented with a great chance to equalise just before half time as the referee penalised what looked like a great tackle from Kabasele on the edge of the box. Thankfully, the free-kick rebounded straight back off the wall, allowing Richarlison to break upfield, but Speroni gathered his cross.
So, the Hornets went into the break with the lead, which should have been considerably more comfortable. We had a few very good chances that should have been converted and, while Palace had a decent share of the play, they had yet to test Gomes.
The first chance of the second half went to the home side, but Mariappa did well to block the shot from Loftus-Cheek. From a Watford throw-in, there was a bit of a scramble before the ball was cleared to Janmaat on the edge of the box from where he shot over the bar. The first card of the game went to Milivojevic for what looked like a fairly innocuous tackle on Doucouré. It seemed an odd decision, as there had been some pretty robust challenges that had escaped punishment. Watford had a superb chance to finish the game off when Janmaat crossed for Richarlison but, with the goal at his mercy, he shot straight at Speroni. Hodgson made a couple of changes at this point as Townsend and Fosu-Mensah made way for van Aanholt and Sako. Silva’s first substitution saw Pereyra come on for Carrillo. Sako’s first contribution was impressive with a dangerous cross from the left that Gomes did brilliantly to palm away from danger. Palace made their final substitution bringing McArthur on for Cabaye. Watford’s first card of the evening came when Cleverley took McArthur down to prevent a break. Silva made a second change with 10 minutes to go, bringing Gray on for Deeney, who hadn’t had the best of evenings. Zaha had a decent chance to grab an equaliser but his shot was just over the target. Silva then made his final substitution bringing Femenía on for Richarlison.
A minute later, it appeared that we would live to regret using our final substitute as Pereyra went down after a nasty tackle from van Aanholt, who was booked for the offense. Just when it appeared that Watford would leave South London with a comfortable three points, Cleverley had a moment of madness. The ball fell to him just outside the area, he swung at it, missed and lost possession. In his desperation to win the ball back, he made a clumsy challenge on Schlupp and was shown a second yellow card, so the Hornets were down to 10 men (again), or 9 as Pereyra was still struggling. Cleverley was barely down the tunnel when Zaha tried a shot, which was saved by Gomes, the ball fell to Sako whose first shot was blocked, but he buried the follow-up sending the home fans, who had been very quiet up to that point, into ecstasy. The fourth official indicated six minutes of added time and it went from bad to worse as Zaha crossed for McArthur to grab the winner.
There was disbelief among the Watford fans at the end of the game. We had been so clearly the better team and had made some excellent chances, so there was no way we should have been leaving South London with no points. Cleverley’s sending off was stupid and gave Palace the momentum, but a second goal earlier in the game would have killed off the Palace threat and there was frustration that this Watford team seem unable to do that. I couldn’t help a wry smile on seeing the message from Watford Police on twitter after the game which reported that “apart from a few disgruntled fans” there was no trouble, which rather nicely summed up the evening.
Adding insult to injury, we had to walk back to the station among jubilant Palace fans, one of whom was overheard saying that we were the best team that he’d seen this season, which only added to the frustration. As I travelled back from the game I started to wonder whether I would have been better to have opted for the work Christmas party. One of my colleagues had sent a photo with the message “where are you?” at about 9:45. On reflection, knowing that was around the time that the game was thrown away and what sort of mood I would have been in on hearing that news while with my colleagues, I made the right decision.
So we go again on Saturday for the visit of Huddersfield and I can only hope that we will see a game in which the result reflects the performance.