I had to be on the East coast of the US for work on Friday. Travelling overnight to attend a football match felt like old times as I did that frequently when I lived there. I was thankful that the flight was on time and I managed to get a few hours sleep so didn’t feel too bad on arrival. Before I went to sleep on the flight, I took one last chance to watch the Match of the Day highlights of the Liverpool game. I needed that positivity before a trip to Selhurst Park. I was home just after 9am, so had plenty of time to shower, change and pack my bag for the football before heading for South London.
Having taken the wrong exit out of East Croydon station, I was somewhat disorientated, but finally found the pub and was pleased to find Jacque and Richard already there, we were later joined by Mike. As we were readying to leave for the game, Mike had a sudden realisation that he had not brought his match ticket with him. He contemplated returning home and, hopefully, making it back for the second half, but after a few panicked texts, he secured a replacement and so was able to see the whole game. Whether that was a positive thing is open to question. On the platform waiting for the train to Selhurst, we met a very friendly and pleasant Palace fan who engaged us in conversation. He was full of praise about our performance against Liverpool last week and far from confident about his team’s prospects for the game. We were appreciative of the praise but also shared his lack of confidence regarding our chances.
Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change with Pereyra replacing the injured Deulofeu. So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Pereyra, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney. While there were no ex-Watford players in the Palace team, they do have the lovely Ray Lew in their dugout, which means that I find it hard to wish them ill.
The first attack of note came from the Hornets as Hughes broke down the right and succeeded in reaching the penalty area where he was frustrated by a great tackle from Kouyaté. Watford had a decent chance to take the lead after quarter of an hour when Doucouré beat a couple of defenders before shooting from a tight angle, but Guaita in the Palace goal was equal to his effort, Sarr latched onto the follow-up but his shot was blocked and deflected wide. There was a rather strange incident as Hughes was fouled, but the ball broke for Sarr so the referee allowed advantage to be played. However, Sarr was then flagged offside and, instead of bringing play back, the free kick went to the home side. A baffling decision that was rightly protested by Watford’s players and fans, but the referee wasn’t moved.
The Hornets threatened again as Doucouré and Sarr broke forward while exchanging passes, but the resulting shots were blocked allowing the home side to break down the other end where Foster came out to head a lofted ball clear. Watford had another chance to break the deadlock as Hughes cut inside and shot just wide of the far post. The first chance for the home side came as Zaha found van Aanholt in the box but his cross was blocked by Foster and bounced off the Palace man for a goal kick. It had been all Watford, so it was incredibly frustrating when the home side scored on 28 minutes after a counterattack, McArthur found Ayew on the edge of the box and he shot between two defenders and past Foster’s outstretched hand. The defenders in question, Cathcart and Masina, really should have done better. Kabasele had been down injured after a challenge during the attack that led to the goal, so VAR was invoked but the goal stood and, thankfully, Christian was able to continue after treatment. The first booking of the game went to Femenía for pulling Zaha over. Watford had a decent chance to hit back when Masina played a lovely ball over the top to Pereyra but he couldn’t position himself to take advantage and Guaita gathered the ball. Zaha was then booked for a pull on Capoue. The Palace man then went down very easily under a challenge from Hughes, which infuriated the Watford players. The decision went against Zaha who was fortunate to avoid a second yellow.
So, we went into the half time break a goal behind to Palace’s only real shot of the half. The Hornets were also unfortunate in the half time penalty shoot-out. Although young Lucy from Watford was a star, scoring and impressing the commentator by celebrating with a cartwheel.
The first incident of note in the second half was a prolonged period of handbags after Capoue fouled Zaha. There was a VAR check for a possible red card but, in the end, there were just cautions for Capoue and Kouyaté. The game restarted with a free kick for Palace in a dangerous position which came to nothing as van Aanholt’s delivery was headed over by Ayew. The next caution of the game went to Doucouré after pulling Zaha back. Zaha was the next to create a scoring chance but Foster stood tall and the shot bounced off him. The Hornets had a chance of their own as a free kick from Pereyra dropped for Deeney whose shot was blocked. Then a lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with Pereyra shooting straight at Guaita. There was another booking as Benteke was cautioned for a foul on Sarr having caught the youngster’s heel as he tried to escape.
There was a half-chance for the Hornets as, from a Sarr cross, a mix up in the Palace defence almost allowed Hughes in but, eventually, Guaita gathered the ball. Midway through the second period, Watford had the best chance of the half so far when Deeney tried a shot from distance that required a smart save from Guaita to tip it over. There was another decent chance soon after when Sarr chipped the ball into the box for Doucouré whose looping header looked to be going in until Guaita pushed it around the post. From the resulting corner, the ball reached Hughes whose shot from the edge of the area was blocked. With 20 minutes to go, Hodgson made his first change, bringing Milivojevic on for McArthur. The home side had a decent chance to increase their lead as Benteke tried a bicycle kick that hit the side netting. With 15 minutes remaining, Pearson made a double substitution replacing Pereyra and Deeney with Pussetto and Welbeck. The Hornets created a half chance as a long ball found Pussetto, who delivered a low cross for Sarr, but Guaita was the first to the ball. Pearson made his final substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes, who left the field in front of the travelling Hornets and was warmly applauded. There were five minutes of added time, but the only action of note was a chance for the home side to increase their lead as Benteke found Ayew, but Foster dived at his feet to avert the danger.
So, after the euphoria of last week, this was an unwelcome return to what has been the reality of most of this season. It was a very disappointing game. The Hornets had been the better team for most of the first half but, as so often this season, did not make the most of their chances and the home side scored after a counterattack. Once they were ahead, Palace defended well and, apart from a brief spell in the second half, Watford never really looked like winning the point that their performance deserved. Thankfully results elsewhere meant that we stayed out of the relegation zone on goal difference, but it felt like a wasted opportunity and, again, I worry that we won’t get the points that we need from the upcoming “winnable” games.
Another disappointment was the away crowd. Last season, one of our party had made complaints when the gangway next to us had filled with fans who celebrated aggressively and caused injury to someone in our group. The complaint had been referred to Croydon council, so we hoped to see an improvement in the stewarding on this occasion. It was not apparent early in the game as a number of Watford fans started to take up positions in the gangway. The stewards made some attempts to move these lads on, but most of their efforts led to complaints which meant that, for periods of the game, my view of one of the few sections of the pitch that I could otherwise see was blocked by stewards arguing with fans. I have often said that I enjoy visiting Selhurst Park, but I realise now that this came from a time before our promotion when there were always a loads of spare seats in the away end and you could choose where to sit. In those days I took up a place in the wooden seats at the back that were usually populated by those who wanted to stand and sing. Nowadays everybody stands which means that, if you need to sit, you have no chance of seeing the game. Added to that, even if you stand, if you are 5’6”, as I am, you won’t see a lot of the action
Our post-match analysis was to take place at Richard’s. He lives in South London and he and his lovely wife had kindly invited us back for dinner and drinks. When the football is as poor as it was on Saturday, a lovely evening with friends is all the therapy that you need.