Crystal Palace cavorted to their first league win of 2022 at the seventh attempt and in doing so surely banished any lingering concerns over being dragged into a relegation battle, making clear in the process their superiority over one of the sides that had hoped to overhaul them.
Two late goals from Wilfried Zaha added gloss to a victory in which the visitors were assisted by opponents whose defence too often seems to favour voluntarily creating chances for their opponents over preventing them.
It is hard to blame Roy Hodgson for the failings of a team that so many other coaches have also failed to inspire, but there was certainly nothing in this game to make anyone at Palace regret no longer having him in their dugout as, the defending at one first-half corner apart, their side appeared both better coached and better motivated, strong in defence, vibrant in attack and ruthless in exposing their hosts’ weaknesses.
“It was an important game for us and we needed that win for our confidence,” Patrick Vieira said. “I think when you’re looking at our performances in the last couple of games, they were good but we were missing this kind of clinical finishing. Today our game was more complete – we defended well, we used the ball well, and when we had chances we scored in important moments in the game.”
The victory against Aston Villa on Saturday had applied the defibrillator paddles to the Hornets’ battle against relegation, but here they once again resembled the walking dead who lost against Brighton in their previous home game. Not since November have they claimed so much as a point at Vicarage Road, a run of defeats now extended to seven.
Hodgson said afterwards that his team were “punished quite heavily for the few defensive mistakes that we made in and around our box”, but in the first half in particular there was a string of them. Hassane Kamara’s miserable attempt to deal with Zaha’s cross fell to Conor Gallagher inside the six-yard box; Samir presented Jean-Philippe Mateta with a chance to run clear from halfway; and the Brazilian failed to deal with Gallagher’s cross as it ran to Mateta, whose shot held little danger before it deflected off Kiko Femenía’s back and wrong-footed Ben Foster.
Roused by the opener the following 10 minutes were Watford’s best of the game and it took only three of them to score, Moussa Sissoko thundering home a header from Femenía’s corner. It was to be their only shot on target.
In the following minutes Emmanuel Dennis and Joshua King both missed presentable headed chances, but in time Watford’s forward momentum faded while the air of defensive calamity did not. Shortly before half-time Gallagher’s sublime first touch brought Nathaniel Clyne’s cross under control, rendered a wildly onrushing Kamara irrelevant and was followed by a fine finish.
Soon after the interval Watford took off King and shifted Dennis to the centre of their attack, and the Nigerian had their only two chances thereafter, prodding wide from a flicked-on free-kick and volleying high when Kamara sent a cleared corner back into the penalty area. Palace did not always dominate possession, but as a rule they looked surer in defence and more threatening, if not exactly a constant menace, in attack.
“We certainly weren’t inferior in terms of our play between the penalty areas,” Hodgson said. “What was different was what Palace did when they had the ball around our penalty area and what we did when we had the ball around theirs.”
The visitors might have extended their lead early in the second half when Mateta exchanged passes with Zaha before running into the left side of the penalty area, from where instead of squaring to Olise he attempted a shot that rolled along the byline and out for a throw-in. Instead they had to wait until the last five minutes, when Zaha brought the game to a joyful conclusion.
Vieira described this as Zaha’s “best performance since I’ve been at the club”, while Hodgson, who after four seasons at Selhurst Park knows the player a little better, said “the bottom line is Wilf, what he did tonight, that’s what he does”.
In the 85th minute the substitute Jordan Ayew chipped in a cross that Zaha controlled, cleverly shifted away from Femenía and finally lashed past Foster with his left foot. Five minutes later, home stands already emptying, he was played into space on the left, cut inside and bent a shot into the far corner from the edge of the area.