It may have taken Sam Allardyce longer than he expected to turn things around at Crystal Palace, but a third successive victory, built on a third successive clean sheet, confirmed his side is gathering momentum in their efforts to secure their place in next season's Premier League.
Had things turned out differently, Allardyce would have spent this weekend waiting nervously by the phone for injury reports on the players he had selected for England’s coming fixtures with Germany and Lithuania. Instead, he had to be content with demonstrating his credentials as a manager who knows his way around a relegation battle.
A Troy Deeney own goal midway through the second half was enough to settle the outcome, moving Palace four points clear of the bottom three, drawing Watford – who have now won just two of their last 13 games - closer towards trouble.
Last weekend’s FA Cup fixtures meant both teams came into this game on the back of a two-week break with Allardyce having taken the opportunity to fly his side out to Morocco for some warm weather training. Instead of appearing rejuvenated, however, the two sides looked decidedly ring-rusty in a desperately poor first half that reflected the significance of this fixture, particularly for Palace.
Wilfried Zaha was the most prominent figure on the pitch – just as he had been when the two teams met at Vicarage Road in December and teh winger was controversially booked for diving - quickly demonstrating he had the measure of Craig Cathcart, the Watford right-back, but the winger’s promising runs were all too often brought to an end by a niggling foul, denying the home side the chance to build any attacking momentum. With Watford similarly inhibited going forward before the break, a first half stalemate seemed inevitable.
Wayne Hennessey, the Palace keeper, was called on to gather M’baye Niang’s long range shot midway through the half but the first real opening came in the 36th minute when Zaha was found the space on the left-hand side of the area to work his way past Cathcart to the byline and deliver a cross that was only half-cleared towards Yohan Cabaye whose shot was deflected wide. Two minutes later, Zaha and Andros Townsend combined with Townsend this time the one to deliver a testing cross that was cleared from under his own crossbar by Miguel Britos.
Allardyce could at least be satisfied that his side had demonstrated the defensive resilience that has been foundation of Palace’s recent improvement. There was little sign of the cutting edge required to deliver victory – and that would remain the case throughout the second half – with Christian Benteke a largely peripheral figure up front, but there was little suggest Watford were better equipped in that area of the field.
There was certainly a greater sense of urgency, if not quality, at the start of the second with Etienne Capoue quickly threatening for the visitors with a shot that rose over the crossbar while the continuing threat of Zaha remained Palace’s most likely source of an opening.
There were signs, however, of the winger growing frustrated at the attention and Zaha was fortunate to escape further punishment when he conceded a free-kick after tangling with Sebastian Prodl in the 62nd minute. Five minutes later, the two players came together again, this time with Prodl the aggressor.
The Watford centre-back’s challenge was punished with a free kick on the Palace left, presenting Yohan Cabaye with the opportunity to deliver the ball towards the far post.
The home side had a strong presence inside the area but the cross was met by Deeney who succeeded only in heading the ball inside Heurelho Gomes’ near post to give Palace the lead they proceeded to defend with an impressive degree of determination.