If ever there was a game which epitomised Sam Allardyce’s managerial career, this was it. When the pressure was on and only a result, not a performance, was needed, his players delivered.
Clean sheets have proved elusive for the former England manager since he arrived in south-east London but here the Eagles managed one, their third in a row, and even won the match without having a shot on target.
The luckless Troy Deeney, who this week was left out of Gareth Southgate’s England squad, provided them with an own goal as he glanced a header past his goalkeeper, Heurelho Gomes, 20 minutes from time to gift Palace the points.
“The 1-0 is very sweet for us and that comes around by our outstanding defending today,” said Allardyce. “The whole team is working very hard against the opposition to nullify their strengths.”
So is the great escape on? “It’s on because we’ve won three on the trot and four out of six,”said Allardyce.
The former England manager had two weeks to prepare his players for this crucial game and spoke enthusiastically of a few days of warm weather training in Morocco. But it is here, in the windswept lower reaches of the Premier League, where he is truly at home.
Premier League survival is far from assured but the Eagles are now four points clear of the drop zone and with Leicester, Burnley and Hull still to visit Selhurst Park, further six-pointers await. For the team with the worst home record in the Premier League, that ought to be a daunting prospect but with their new-found Allardyce brand of defensive obduracy, things are looking up.
“Prior to this I’d been changing week in week out almost to try and find a result,” said Allardyce of his team selections. “We’ve disappointed some players who are not playing as much as they’d want to but the players are picking themselves.”
The picture is not so pretty at the other end of the field, with only Wilfried Zaha emerging with much credit amongst Palace’s forward players.
Watford were no better and are not yet out of danger themselves but with a seven-point cushion between them and the relegation places, they should be OK – despite this turgid display.
“If we have to look at the table, I’m not really worried about the position we are in,” shrugged manager Walter Mazzarri, despite only winning twice in 13 games.
The first half brought no chances of note, though Zaha did his best to give the spectators something to look at. His efforts were often thwarted by cynical attention from Watford, none more so than when Tom Cleverley raced across to pitch to scythe him to the floor when Zaha was making inroads down the left.
“Today Wilf was outstanding for us and for me it was just a pity he didn’t score,”said Allardyce.
Afterwards, Allardyce praised Christian Benteke’s work rate but the Belgian was largely anonymous and fluffed the one sight of goal he had in the second half.
“A bit anxious,” was Allardyce’s diagnosis.
It is to be hoped that the children of Morocco had more to admire than the 25,000 at Selhurst Park and Allardyce admitted that “at times, it wasn’t pretty”.
For Watford, Daryl Janmaat’s attempted volley at goal ballooned into the sky and back down to where he had struck it from: a microcosm of this match. And things were little better after the break.
The crucial moment came when another cynical foul on Zaha from Sebastian Prödl brought a free-kick for Palace. Yohan Cabaye whipped it in dangerously and Deeney nodded past Gomes at the near post.
Abdoulaye Doucoure had replaced Valon Behrami for Watford at half-time and his shot, tipped round the post by Wayne Hennessey, was the closest they came to an equaliser.