By Kevin Affleck
This was more like it. Any fears that this season was about to fizzle out were dispelled at Vicarage Road this afternoon as the Hornets had a right good go at Crystal Palace in a lively encounter to collect a point and edge ever closer to being mathematically safe.
We all know the Hornets are virtually immune from relegation but what we needed was proof that this team wasn't already on its holidays on the back of five matches without a win. We got the answer in spades this afternoon as the Golden Boys played with real spirit, energy and ambition, particularly in the first half, to get the crowd rocking, restore a bit of faith and make Sir Elton's John's trip to these parts well worth his while. The Honorary Life President will have left knowing his beloved team is in good shape. It's difficult to not love a team when they turn up and put in a shift like that. It's all you can ask for as a fan.
Relegation-threatened Palace will probably be happier with a point from an awkward away trip as they were lucky to go in at the break all-square, especially after Stefano Okaka cracked a header against the cross-bar. They really had to dig in and stand firm amid a bit of a Watford onslaught. But the Eagles were perhaps the better side in the second half and hit the bar themselves through Luka Milivojević. They probably had good grounds for a penalty too and would have got one in all likelihood had Wilfried Zaha not made a meal of a challenge by Adrian Mariappa.
Watford ran out of puff a bit, which wasn't surprising given the energy they expended in the first half, but crucially they didn't concede late on this time and, more importantly, they dealt with balls into the box much, much better. They bolted the back door shut, decided it was best to hold what they had and show a bit of game management.
The clean sheet was a welcome one and no mean feat against a Palace side who had scored three the week before against Brighton. It was the first shut-out since the win over the doomed West Brom and said plenty about the organisational skills of centre-backs Christian Kabasele and Craig Cathcart who were playing together in the league for the first time.
Troy Deeney said in his programme notes that this game is probably the closest thing to a derby these days for Watford and there was certainly plenty of needle and spikiness about this one. It was a good old-fashioned blood-and-thunder affair and no-one was taking a backward step. It was actually quite surprising that 22 men stayed on the field, not because there was anything dirty about the game but because both teams played with their foot to the floor and no-one was pulling out of any challenges. It represented everything that is good about the English game. Referee Chris Kavanagh handled the game very well.
Amid a thunderous atmosphere, the best at Vicarage Road since the game against Chelsea, the Hornets started on the front foot, seemingly with a point to prove and you had Okaka charging across the front line causing havoc and skittling defenders, Mariappa crunching into a tackle on Ruben Loftus-Cheek that set the tone and even Étienne Capoue mixing it in the air and winning at least two towering headers. The Frenchman had a fine game.
You also had the subtleties of the velvet-footed pair of Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra to complement the brawn and muscularity of others. Both came off their flanks to link the play and provide those subtle variations when it would have just been easy to sling the ball into the box for the big men. Pereyra, in particular, had his man Joel Ward on toast and the full-back was walking a tightrope after picking up an early booking for a crude foul on the Argentine.
Abdoulaye Doucouré also picked up a first half booking and he could possibly count himself a touch fortunate not to receive a second yellow for racing over to protest at a theatrical fall from Zaha towards the end of the first half. Doucouré now has 10 bookings, more than anyone else in the league, but he will be just grateful this one didn't end in a red before half-time. Zaha was lucky later to not receive a card of any kind after leaving his foot in on Orestis Karnezis, but the pantomime villain did eventually pick up a booking for diving, much to the joyous delight of the home crowd.
Palace may have had more to play for but there was no doubt Watford had the better of the chances in the first 45 minutes. Making his first start since Swansea at home in December, Okaka headed against the bar after just four minutes from a Deeney cross. It was the first time they had started a game together this season and the signs were promising that this was a partnership that could work from the off and isn't just one to be turned to when the team needed a goal.
Okaka was proving a handful and this was very much one of those days when he runs hot. James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho knew they were in a game and it was from the Italian's cross-shot that Ward almost put through his own net. There was also a half-chance for Cathcart but that was about it in the way of goalmouth action in the first 45 minutes. It wasn't for the want of trying, though, as Watford had 11 shots to Palace's two and they fully deserved the applause they received from a very appreciative home crowd as they headed down the tunnel at half-time. This was the perfect response to the defeat at Huddersfield.
Gracia was forced to make a change after just 10 minutes of the second half when Pereyra limped off but it says something about the strength in depth that Watford boast these days that Richarlison came on as his replacement.
The Hornets lost a little bit of momentum after Pereyra went off and Palace began to get a foothold on proceedings. With Zaha to the fore, they struck the cross-bar when Luka Milivojević bent a free-kick over the wall and past the despairing dive of Karnezis. It was a warning shot that the game was still in the balance and could go either way.
This was definitely Palace's best spell of the game and it needed Deeney, of all people, to be virtually on the goal-line and stop Sakho turning the ball that rebounded off the post into the empty net. Then there was that big shout for a penalty when Zaha went down. On first glance it looked like Watford might have got away with one there.
The feeling that Palace were now on top was confirmed when Gracia pulled off Okaka and stiffened the troublesome right-hand side of the team by introducing Kiko Femenía. Palace were getting a lot of joy down that side and the Head Coach needed to stem the flow. He did it successfully in a sign that the Spaniard can stick as well as twist.
The Head Coach, who is attacking by nature, did bring on Andre Gray late on in attempt to pinch a winner, but as hard as both sides pushed, it never came. It certainly wasn't for the want of trying. You won't get many more entertaining nil-nil draws than this.
HORNETS | Karnezis (GK); Mariappa, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes (Gray 79), Doucourè, Capoue, Pereyra (Richarlison 55); Okaka (Femenía 71), Deeney (C).
Subs not used | Gomes (GK), Janmaat, Britos, Sinclair.