Crystal Palace 1 Watford 0 (18/03/2017) 19/03/2017Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
1- Much as there have been few more frequent opponents in recent years that Palace, much as it feels as if we play here every other week I’ve not made it down to Selhurst Park for almost nine years.
So much has changed in that time. So much has changed, period, but particularly on the pitch; this feels like a throwback to a bygone age. Days when we used to travel to watch terrible games in grimy stadiums and travel home wondering why we’d bothered (this is called “setting up a punchline”, btw).
On the plus side, the bottle-top nazis of ten years ago no longer seem to patrol the turnstiles… at any rate, I manage to get the contraband Evian bottle in unchallenged, rendering the precautionary spare lid in my pocket redundant. Having a deceptively cherubic-looking seven year old in tow, hair in plaits, warpaint on cheeks, helps of course, but I must confess that I prefer the charm offensive that is increasingly the norm on the way into away grounds. Maybe I’m getting old.
The Arthur Wait Stand is still where we left it, even if we’ve been shunted along it a bit, away from the Holmesdale End. The wooden benches have been replaced by blue plastic on tiers barely wide enough to accommodate it. The pervasive smell of damp wood is gone and whilst the sky is, as ever in Croydon, grey at least it’s not raining.
2- It’s an extraordinarily bad game. Creatively awful. Sorry if you were hoping for more dramatic build up, more suspense than that. Too bad. I sat through it, if you were hoping for drama then you clearly didn’t bloody do so and you’ll get what you’re given and like it.
To be fair, the appalling level of entertainment on offer is partly by design, no mere accident of incompetence although there’s enough of that. Both sides are set up to be solid first; this is particularly true of the Hornets who line up with centre-backs across the back four in an overt attempt to negate Palace’s threat from the wings (given that, in particular, we built a squad to play with wing-backs and are thus short of full-backs who can defend reliably). It works, too, in that the Eagles are largely kept at arm’s length; the game fluctuates between two moods… calm possession, often Watford possession, in the central half of the pitch and scruffy bedlam in either penalty area. Like a teenager on the pull, all the moves in the early stages but a fumbling mess at the business end of things. All mouth and no trousers. Insert your own joke about “inability to score” here.
3- The low roof of the Arthur Wait Stand and the claustrophobic lack of space afforded by its geography lend themselves to an intense atmosphere, which is the most enjoyable aspect of the game by some distance. Wilfried Zaha wriggles into the penalty area early on and goes down easily; Martin Atkinson is unimpressed but the away “end” is delighted by developments and proceeds accordingly if predictably. The repertoire moves on to cover bad bus-vandalising decisions and the how much of a let-down the notorious Selhurst Park atmosphere was turning out to be; I hope for a reference to the 2006 Eagle Express, but I guess that’s old news now.
The game is tetchy throughout. Maybe the Zaha thing contributes to this, maybe every game at Selhurst is this way in ongoing tribute to Sasa Curcic. Either way, the first half ends in drab-but-more-or-less-satisfactory stalemate, but with Jason Puncheon in heated discussion with Valon Behrami on the way off. The Swiss wouldn’t return for the second half, replaced by a dynamic Abdoulaye Doucouré. As an aside, and discounting our appalling record with injuries, it seems reasonable to question our recruitment strategy and/or our fitness regime given the number of players we have who can’t be relied upon to last ninety minutes… Behrami and Janmaat being simply too fragile, Success and Zuñiga, seemingly, being unable to last the distance.
If that sounds grumpy, it merely reflects the mood of the game. Tom Cleverley lost his cool, refusing Puncheon’s perhaps anxious attempts to make peace whilst demonstrating a stamping action after a challenge. Zaha cuffed Prödl over the head in a tussle to no censure. Milivojevic went in hard and late on Niang without being penalised, Palace broke swiftly down the left and Prödl exacted revenge on Zaha by clobbering him into the stand. From the free kick “Palace scored”, aggravating on any number of levels. First, that we had a strong case for a free kick of our own seconds earlier (but these things happen, decisions go against you sometimes, live with it…). Second that whilst Zaha’s quick feet didn’t yield Palace’s opening his being an obnoxious maggot and provoking a retributional foul, ultimately, did.
4- But mostly because this was a classic game of next goal wins. From the very start of the game. We’d looked relatively untroubled by Palace’s limited attacking threat, until Troy’s lapse of concentration made that academic. Finding ourselves a goal down we were completely unable to change our approach and mount a serious threat; indeed Palace finished the game much the stronger, partly buoyed by their lead and the crowd (who had found their voice) but partly through being able to swarm into the gaps that we were having to leave. I have no doubt that they’d have been equally incapable of overturning a Watford goal, had that emerged.
The four centre-backs thing deprived us of any real threat from wide, since neither Cathcart nor Britos were going to bomb on to provide support making our wide men easier to cope with. As so often recently we fell lazily back on lumping long balls to Troy, who battled on but was left with scraps by Mamadou Sakho who had much the better of that contest. Nordin Amrabat had been re-introduced to noisy acclaim shortly before the goal but looked rusty and offered little, though we will benefit from progressing him towards fitness. Our biggest threat, indeed, came from Doucouré who did the Worrell Sterling thing in saving his best half for the Hornets for one of the team’s worst; our only meaningful attempt on target was awkward slung shot across the face of goal from distance which forced Hennessey into a scrambled save. As the game drew to a close and the Watford crowd bitterly cheered an inconsequential free kick award on the half-way line I was once again taken back nine years as the voice of Don Fraser, who would have been sitting over my right shoulder at the Vic at that time, floated over the sarcastic applause. “Referee, you’re so masterful…”.
5- Most aggravating about our current position is the knowledge that we’re so much less than the sum of our parts. Yes, we’ve had crippling injuries in key positions that have disrupted our ability to build an attacking threat but despite this you’ve got to feel that we ought to be getting more out of what is undoubtedly the most talented squad we’ve ever had. This challenge is embodied by M’Baye Niang, who after a couple of high impact games now looks like a quality player in second gear, never better illustrated than when a rare late opening on the break was curtailed by the Frenchman wandering back from an offside position. I may have sworn at this point.
The whistle went, to boos in the away end. We navigated our way back to Selhurst station, via the landmarks we’d passed on the way… the bin liner of rubbish left, split and spilling its contents across the pavement. The cafe offering takeaway fare, “cheaper than the ground”, which looked as about inviting as a punch in the face. The corner that reeked of marijuana.
We shouldn’t be in a position where we’re looking over our shoulder, but we are very much looking over our shoulder. The stat about losing a game without Palace having a shot on target is perverse and embarrassing if a little misleading – it was the sort of game that a lapse would decide. But it also harks back to dropped points under another Italian manager who came across as distant and slightly supercilious, under similar circumstances.
I don’t think we’ll go down. We need maybe two wins out of the remaining ten games, and whilst there are games in there that can’t be relied on for points we ought to manage six. The frustration is that it’s even in question, and the niggle that a relegation battle being a recent development means that our squad and management might not be as mentally atuned to (or engaged in?) the challenge as some of the others down there.
Three points from our next two games, Sunderland and West Brom at home, are an absolute minimum given what the fixture list leaves us with thereafter.