Crystal Palace one, Watford nil. At Wembley. The final game of a long, long season, bringing the curtain down on the English football calendar – not a game worthy of an extraordinary Watford campaign. The inevitable Kevin Phillips goal, a 105th minute penalty, condemned the Hornets to another year in the Championship, whilst elevating Palace to the epicurean climes of the Premier League.
Although the backroom staff have created a strong squad, it cannot be denied that we rely on two or three individuals to hit our peak. But when it mattered Almen Abdi, Troy Deeney and Nathaniel Chalobah simply didn’t perform.
Abdi was a ghost. Much like the second half in our February clash with Palace, he was suffocated by the Palace midfield, this time led by the hirsute Aussie Mile Jedinak. In the first half, the midfield was free to build up from the back, but could not advance past the deep-lying duo of Jedinak and Dikgacoi/O’Keefe. We’ve said before that Abdi is the metronome that dictates the rhythm of the Watford attack, but yesterday he didn’t tick and going forward, we lacked a pulse. A very late extra-time free kick that sailed into the hands of Julian Speroni and a gaping last-gasp chance that sailed into the stand were the only times that Abdi found himself in any sort of space to showcase his ball-striking ability, and both were wasted.
Deeney’s performance, meanwhile, was summed up by his attempted over-head kick in the second half. By the time he’d got himself into position and gone through the motions, the ball had cannoned off his shin and over the bar. It just didn’t click. The two semi-finals against Leicester showed how important Deeney’s physicality is for creating space high up the pitch. Recently he has completely taken big units like Danny Shittu and Wes Morgan out of games, but in Danny Gabbidon and Damien Delaney he found an immovable object that withstood his unstoppable force. He probably wasn’t helped by his first half strike partner lacking in fitness, but he got no change from a solid Palace defence all game, even after Alex Geijo came on and stretched the play.
Chalobah has had a great first season in professional football, but in the last month or so he’s simply run out of gas. He was never at the races yesterday: his silky first touch was stodgy, his incisive passing was awry, and he should have been replaced with Battocchio sooner. None of this should be held against him. Nate is a prodigious talent, but he’s just a boy. He should be taking his A2s, but instead he’s playing in front of 80,000 football fans. It may not have helped that one of those watching was his new boss Jose Mourinho, adding pressure to impress when his body just wouldn’t let him. What Nate needs before taking on the Premier League next year is a good long rest. Unfortunately, he’ll be off to Israel to represent England u21s in the European Championships, so won’t be getting a real break for quite some time.
Watford’s stars may have been absent, but boy did Palace’s turn up. It’s become trendy to talk down Wilfried Zaha’s ability of late – probably since his England cap – but he is a truly fantastic player. The speed with which he can move his feet, his reaction to loose balls and his strength and determination make him a truly terrifying spectre for defenders. You get the feeling when watching him that he’s never entirely certain what he’s going to do next, but if the ball goes somewhere unexpected, then he’ll be the quickest to it.
All of which makes him a constant threat. When he’s on the ball, defenders are scared to get near him. We saw time and time again: Daniel Pudil, marking him fairly comfortably, wouldn’t get too close or dare put a tackle in lest he use his skill to knock it past him. When players do pluck up the courage to try and knock him off the ball he either breezes past, or wins a free-kick – or indeed, a penalty. He even showed impressive defensive chops in extra time, tracking back to deal with Forestieri, and then haring up the other end of the pitch to keep the ball in the corner.
It’s hard to see how Palace will stay up in the Premier League after losing their biggest match-winner to Manchester United. Fans might harbour hopes that their promotion could see him return for another year on loan, but he could set his sights a lot higher than that.
The one player in Watford’s ranks who comes close to Zaha’s unpredictability, Fernando Forestieri, was left on the bench for too long. When he was introduced as an 86th minute substitute for Ikechi Anya, he, along with the change of shape to a 4-3-3, changed the tide. He put the Palace defence on the back foot and almost grabbed a 120th minute equaliser after twisting and turning his way into a shooting position before hitting a curling shot with the outside of his right foot into the top corner. Only Joel Ward lurking on the line to head away prevented the game going to penalties.
In the first half we created very little, Jedinak – who could have been sent off for a second yellow a number of times over the course of the game – protected the back line and when he was bypassed Gabbidon and Delaney gobbled up our chances. The one time we did penetrate through the middle, Vydra’s sight on goal was quickly shut down by a desperate but excellent Delaney lunge. The Czech striker felt the force of the block, and was forced off at half time with an ankle injury.
Alex Geijo was introduced in his plce, to the surprise of most, and he transformed the front line. It wasn’t exactly a frog to prince job, but his direct running, use of the channels, and ability to bring the ball down did leave us looking like a slightly less grotesque reptile. An Okopipi perhaps.
Geijo seems to be one of those players that fans will never warm to. Maybe it’s his gangly physique, or maybe it’s that he’s not the type of player that will be brought on for ten minutes every two weeks to score a match-winning goal, but as soon as he’s on the ball, you hear the grumbles. Having just sat through 45 minutes of Deeney and Vydra seeing absolutely none of the ball, you’d have thought that a striker bringing it down and running at the Palace defence – opening holes and creating chances – would have been better received. But the cat calls continued. I’d wager that this is the last we see of the Geneva-born striker. There’s no doubting that he’s not entirely suited to the English game, but he hasn’t got the chance that his talent warrants.
There’s another difference between the two sides. While our two attacking options on the bench added creativity and ingenuity, we didn’t have anyone in reserve who could be relied on to stick the ball in the back of the net. In Kevin Phillips, however, Palace had a man who was born to score goals. He hasn’t played for three weeks? No bother. He needs no warming up, no playing-in period. He’ll come on, and he’ll nab you a goal.
With the passage through the middle of the pitch proving unyielding, it fell upon the wide men to provide. Unfortunately, Pudil was too busy trying to cope with Zaha to get forward, though on the one occasion he did he might have been awarded a penalty after a trip by Gabbidon. On the other side, Anya had Dean Moxey on toast, but was – for some reason – loathe to take him on. Anya seems to lack confidence in his own ability on the wing, when he did knock the ball past the static full-back the ensuing foot race was like watching Usain Bolt take on a Bulgarian shot-putter, but it didn’t happen again. True pace is an incredible asset to have for a footballer, it can take you far. Once Anya learns how to harness it, he could be a real danger to Championship defenders.
At the back, things were uncertain. On the left, Pudil and Cassetti fumbled around trying to deal with Zaha, whilst on the other side, Anya and Doyley kept the usually-central Jonathan Williams silent. Lloyd, in particular, was phenomenal. With the opposite flank crumbling, he was always in the middle to clear crosses, and when Wilbraham raced clear in the second half, he produced a stunning piece of defending to get in front of the attacker and clear. The fans’ nerves were in tatters, but Lloyd looked completely unruffled.
After his testimonial in pre-season, we lauded Doyley’s ability to fight his way back into the plans of a succession of managers. Surely not this year, though. Not with Watford looking to play the type of free-flowing football that’s completely at odds with his skillset. How could we doubt him? Lloyd has looked at home on the ball, totally calm in possession, but moreover is just a bloody good defender.
Behind him, Manuel Almunia kept Palace at bay with a succession of big saves. None were too spectacular, there were no acrobatics, but when the defence was breached, the attacker still had the massive figure of the Spaniard bearing down on him, and all but once his wide spread was equal to every shot. He almost got to the penalty, too.
In the end, Palace’s victory was well-deserved. They were always the first to the ball, they kept it, and when they applied pressure, they kept at it. Watford took control in fits and starts, never using momentum to truly shift the flow of the game. When Phillips rifled the ball into the top corner after Cassetti felled Zaha, the correct result was assured. But we can always think about what might have been had Delaney not got that block in, had Forestieri put his last-minute shot a foot wider, had the Watford we’ve seen all season turned up.
It’s another year in the Championship for the Hornets. With a pre-season and a few signings to strengthen the squad, we’ll be one of the favourites. Perhaps when we’re laughing ourselves silly at a fourth consecutive 4-0 win, we’ll glance at the Sunday papers, read about Palace’s trouncing at Old Trafford and realise that things aren’t so bad after all.