Christmas was spent with family, so we travelled en masse to the early kick-off on Boxing Day. The roads were surprisingly empty but as we got nearer to the ground, the crowds were gathering and the pulses quickened.
Despite Palace’s poor performances this season, the news that Pardew had been replaced by Allardyce was not what we needed going in to this game and I approached it with low expectations.
The main team news was that Deeney had been named on the bench, with Janmaat taking his place in a front three. Mazzarri’s other change was to bring Guedioura in for Zúñiga. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Capoue, Behrami, Guedioura; Amrabat, Ighalo and Janmaat.
Mazzarri’s game plan was scuppered in the first couple of minutes as Janmaat picked up an injury while tackling Zaha and was stretchered off to be replaced by Zúñiga. I was gratified to see that a good number of the Palace fans joined us in applauding Janmaat off the pitch. There was an early scare for the Hornets when Zaha, who was booed from the start by the Watford fans, was tripped by Guedioura in a dangerous position. I held my breath as Clattenburg pointed to where the offence was committed but could breathe again when he confirmed that it was outside the box. Thankfully, the free kick did not trouble Gomes. There were more injury woes for the Hornets on 13 minutes as Behrami went down holding his hamstring. He was replaced by Deeney, whose first touch was a lovely ball to Ighalo, but the Nigerian’s cross was blocked. There was nothing in the way of notable chances before the 24th minute when Prödl tackled Benteke on the edge of the box, the ball broke to Cabaye whose shot was just wide of the near post. The Palace man was more successful in the next move, Townsend broke forward and played a lovely through ball to Cabaye, who looked a mile offside when he slotted home, but our hopes were dashed as the linesman kept his flag down and the visitors took the lead. Cabaye also had the next chance with a shot that was well wide of the near post.
Watford’s first meaningful chance of the game came on the half hour as Holebas played the ball out to Guedioura who shot wide of the far post. Another chance came Watford’s way when Ighalo was tripped on the edge of the box, the ball fell to Amrabat but his cross-cum-shot hit Zúñiga and ran through to Hennessey. The home side looked to be the architects of their own downfall on 36 minutes as Prödl played a terrible back pass to Gomes, Benteke ran on to it and was tripped by the Watford keeper. The referee had no choice but to point to the spot. Benteke stepped up to take the penalty himself and, with the Rookery doing their best to put him off, hit a terrible shot that was easily saved by Gomes on his 100th appearance for the club. Boos greeted the half time whistle. It had been a very poor half from the Hornets who had created next to nothing. Salt was rubbed into the wound by the half time entertainment, which was a montage of goals on the big screen. As I watched it, I despaired that the same players were now incapable of hitting a barn door.
The Hornets made a much better start to the second half but the lively play didn’t translate into many chances. The first was a shot from distance from Guedioura that flew wide of the far post. Then Prödl played a ball the length of the pitch, Ighalo latched onto it in the box, but could only shoot wide of the near post. The next chance fell to Zúñiga, as a Prödl free kick was headed down to him by Deeney, but he shot into Row ZZ, so I didn’t have to duck. Amrabat went on a lovely run and crossed to the opposite wing where Zúñiga picked the ball up, but his cross was blocked. Then Watford got the break that they needed as, at a corner, Prödl was dragged to the ground by Delaney and Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot. The significance of the penalty award was not lost on anyone in the Rookery as Deeney picked up the ball and the tension grew. Trevor in the row in front said he didn’t have a good feeling about this. “Shut up, Cassandra!” Our Cate wasn’t sure she could look. I was just concentrating on the man with the ball muttering a mantra, “Come on Troy. Come on Troy.” Deeney kissed the ball and placed it on the spot, sent Hennessey the wrong way and the Rookery into raptures as he finally scored his hundredth goal for the Hornets. It had been a long time coming, but it was richly deserved as he had worked incredibly hard since he came on.
The visitors tried to hit back as Puncheon took a free kick, but it was headed over the target by Dann. A Palace substitution saw former Watford loanee Jordon Mutch replace a less fondly remembered loanee, Andros Townsend. There was a rare moment of quality as Zúñiga played a clever back heel to Guedioura whose cross was met with a flick header from Ighalo that was easily gathered by Hennessey. Mazzarri’s final substitution saw Sinclair come on for Zúñiga. The next action of note was Zaha going down in the Watford box, my heart sank and then swelled when I saw the referee indicate a Watford free kick and brandish a yellow card at the Palace man. The final chance of the game came with a lovely bit of ball juggling from Guedioura, but his volley was saved by Hennessey and the game finished with honours even.
A draw was probably a fair result. The visitors had the best of the first half, but the Hornets had been the better team in the second. The game would probably have been very different had Watford’s starting XI lasted a bit longer, but there was a great deal of frustration at the lack of service to the forwards. Amrabat and Holebas have been two of our better performers this season but they managed one decent cross into the box between them. One positive for me was that there were some indications of a revival of the understanding between Deeney and Ighalo. But when I start fretting about recent results, I look at the table and marvel at the fact that we will finish the year in 10th place in the Premier League so, despite some awful performances, we are doing something right.