A penny for Gareth Southgate’s thoughts. In the week that the England manager picked his first squad since being confirmed as Sam Allardyce’s permanent replacement, Wilfried Zaha turned in yet another virtuoso performance as Southgate’s former club put distance between themselves and the bottom three with a third straight victory.
An own goal from the Watford captain Troy Deeney after Zaha had been scythed down for the umpteenth time on an afternoon when he gave the visiting defenders a torrid time was enough to lift Palace four points clear of Hull.
Daylight can be seen at the end of the tunnel but how Southgate must wish the winger raised in south London had not opted last year to represent Ivory Coast given the season he has had. “Playing like that he is outstanding,” purred Allardyce afterwards.
Palace’s revival had seen them pick up as many points from their last two matches as they had in his first eight in charge to lift themselves clear of the relegation zone. In the absence of the injured left-back Patrick van Aanholt – who scored the winning goal against Middlesbrough in the last game at Selhurst Park – they were able to draft in another £9m January signing in the form of Jeffrey Schlupp.
That and the presence of eight internationals in Palace’s starting line-up is a measure of the extent of investment that has been ploughed into this squad by its American co-owners in an attempt to ensure they remain in the Premier League. But with only 10 points and 14 goals from 13 matches Allardyce’s side began this game with the division’s worst home record.
Watford, in contrast, had less to worry about given that they sat seven points clear of danger at kick-off despite winning only twice in their last 12 matches. That could change quickly given recent results, although in Deeney they have a striker who is a constant threat. He was looking to prove a point after being left out of the England squad despite scoring five goals in his last six appearances, yet the afternoon was to end on a sour note.
Zaha, who played for Southgate in the Under 21s, went down on the edge of the box under a challenge from Craig Cathcart in the game’s first meaningful incident after four minutes. The referee, Martin Atkinson, waved away the protests and, on closer inspection, Zaha appeared to be pushed but the contact came just outside the area.
After that there was little to report during the first half as both teams struggled to create chances on a blustery day in south London. Watford stuck to their game plan of allowing Palace possession in the second half as Deeney continued to hustle and harry against the powerful Mamadou Sakho.
The France centre-half – so instrumental in Palace’s last two victories – also seemed to be the team’s most potent attacking weapon at times with his long-range passing. Twice Christian Benteke latched on to them but could not quite create the opening. Zaha then should have done better when Andros Townsend’s cross found him at the back post and his shot was way off target.
It felt as if a goal was coming and so it proved. Switched to the left flank, Zaha was taken out by Sebastian Prödl with a wild tackle and, after a long delay while M’baye Niang received treatment, Cabaye’s free-kick skimmed off the top of Deeney’s head and in via the post.
“We had to tough it out for long periods of time,” said Allardyce, who admitted that Benteke, who missed two late opportunities, was suffering a crisis of confidence in front of goal. “Today was about matching them and producing a bit of quality to win the game and that came on a couple of occasions before we got the goal. The result came about by our outstanding defending – the whole team is working hard to deny the other team opportunities and we got what we deserved in the end.”
Deeney’s own goal was a cruel blow for the Watford skipper, with Walter Mazzarri, the manager, complaining afterwards that Niang had been fouled in the build-up. “I’m not really worried with our position,” insisted the Italian. “We must be better going forward but, if we keep playing like that, it shouldn’t be a problem.”