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Watford 1 Crystal Palace 0 (24/08/2021) 25/08/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1-  Having managed to take positives out of a startlingly thorough beating at Brighton, I found my new found state of zen challenged for the first time this season in the build up to this one.  More general than football…  I don’t remember when I was last in a traffic jam, what with One Thing And Another, but it seems that this is one thing without any nostalgia value.

I’d left Bedford at 5, which should have facilitated a leisurely drive down, a stop at Fry Days and so forth.  Instead I parked up at ten past seven, forewent fish and chips and headed to the ground past the ominous if affable queues at each of the Occupation Road turnstiles.  Good job the stadium’s only half full, really…

Fortunately, due to a combination of manpower and, I suspect, pragmatism with cantankerous e-tickets, there are no queues at the Rookery turnstiles.  Nonetheless, sitting down in an empty row and surveying the similarly empty stadium I’m underwhelmed.  Yes it’s “only” the League Cup but, jesus, it’s football ?!?  After so long?  Where is everybody?

Daughters 1 and 2 cases in point;  a week with my Mum and Dad in the holidays, a drive over to Watford with Granddad declined at the last.  So it’s a bit miserable.  Good job the chicken pie from the kiosk is decent.

2- Plus, our first game in the League Cup is always rubbish.  We’ve discussed in the past, that there is only one such game, taking place in an alternative dimension that we dip into once a year, where the wheels grind eternally and nothing ever happens.

The opponents switch shirts in the interim of course, typically bearing the livery of a game tryer from the lower divisions capable and committed enough to stop us from playing but not talented enough to hurt us themselves.  In the absence of such an opponent, Palace convey a fitting air of underwhelming grubbiness that suits the stage of the competition.  Will Hughes – and it still breaks my heart to contemplate his surely inevitable departure – would be wasted on this shower.

The certainty of defeat isn’t improving my mood.  The debris of Saturday’s midfield is still fresh in the memory, and similar personnel are named here in the absence of much in the way of plausible alternatives. Clevs gets a rest on the bench though alongside Jaime Alvarado, one of those names familiar only to completists amongst the fanbase who seemed destined for loans to Spain and probably, ultimately, a return to Colombia.  To what extent his presence was necessitated by lack of midfield alternatives versus his own rising star remains to be seen.

We make seven changes, albeit largely in the areas of the pitch that have looked kind of ok.  Palace appear to name closer to a full strength eleven, albeit some of their key protagonists start on the bench – Guaita, McArthur, Mitchell, Benteke.  Yes, yes, Chelsea and so forth… nonetheless  Patrick Vieira will be edgy until he gets his first win, hell his first goal, and can’t turn down any opportunity to seize it.

3- After a fairly even start the visitors begin to dominate possession.  Zaha is in the starting eleven, to a predictable welcome, but Jeremy Ngakia sticks close to him and repeatedly gets under his feet before he can establish control of the ball.  He’s still prominent but largely restricted, Connor Gallagher’s movement the bigger threat early on – he floats in behind the defence but is foiled by Foster’s alertness.

On the other flank there’s a welcome (second) debut for Danny Rose, though much as when Richard Jobson briefly returned to the fold it’s a different bloke of a different size in a different position and at the opposite end of his career to the youngster who briefly appeared in our midfield under Brendan Rodgers.  Concerns about his fitness after so little match action are front of mind, and Rose looks sluggish for the first five minutes or so, twice being exposed by Jordan Ayew down the right.

Any concerns were misplaced.  As the game progressed Rose warmed to the task, and looked like the pugnacious, intelligent, aggressive, dependable full back of your dreams.  There’s an argument that bringing in a quality alternative might coax greater consistency out of the incumbent, but Adam Masina has more than a theoretical threat to his place on Sunday.

In the centre, William Troost-Ekong had a nervous day at Brighton, and the signs weren’t great when the cumbersome and otherwise ineffective Mateta mugged him on the touchline early on.  Thereafter he settled down however, with his regular “fixer” alongside him in the returning Sierralta.  Midway through the half Palace came as close as they were to come to a goal but Troost-Ekong salvaged the situation by contorting himself to head out, impossibly, from underneath the crossbar.

With Peter Etebo returning to the high bar set against Villa patrolling in front of the defence (as well as suggesting a hitherto unadvertised ability to deliver a set piece) we were doing a fair job of keeping our opponents at arm’s length, much as we had Villa for much of the opening game.  Palace don’t seem to need much help looking blunt and inconsequential at the moment in any case, but we played a part in their downfall, exposing their anxieties.  They finished the half having had most of the possession but with little to show for it.

4- As on Saturday we were better after the break.  Joshua King, slightly surprisingly and presumably reflecting either lack of fitness or an injury concern, was withdrawn in favour of cat’o nine tails Emmanuel Dennis.  We saw more of the ball and looked threatening in attacking positions, but for all Etebo’s involvement the midfield, for obvious reasons, remains the bit that needs the most attention.  Louza offered an improvement on Saturday also, an ability to play a sharp pass and a willingness to get in where it’s dirty but was still both bulliable and giving the ball away too much.

Up front, Cucho had a quieter game;  referee Robinson getting his number early on after a stereotypically South American spin and roll at the feet of a bemused Jordan Ayew.  He kept plugging, but wasn’t getting very far.  On the opposite flank was Ashley Fletcher, who for all his awkward legginess looks more like a centre-forward than a winger.  He’s been brought in ostensibly as attacking cover, but that’s increasingly a specialist role requiring certain characteristics as well as a level of ability (Spurs, perennially trying to cover Kane, have ended up signing wingers who can fill in rather than a backup centre-forward).

The point is, Fletcher will see the number of senior attacking players on our books (discounting Gray and Success he’s still competing with King, João Pedro, Sarr, Dennis, Deeney, Cucho and Sema for one of three forward roles) and know that he’s primarily backup, however much faith he’s got in his own ability.  He’s got to be happy with that, or at least be ready and willing to knuckle down and take his chances when they come, a team player; assessment of that character will surely have been part of his recruitment.

On this evidence he’s good foil for that role.  If we see limited evidence of a challenge for a regular start, there’s energy, knees, elbows, power… not a lot of subtlety, but a relentless doggedness that will serve him well.

So we have more of the game.  If there’s a concern – beyond the nascent midfield – it’s that for all the fun catching-them-on-the-break stuff we’re not quite clinical enough.  That’s inevitable perhaps, players getting used to each other and so on.  But Villa demonstrated how quickly things can change;  Palace didn’t score, but they might have.  For all that there was some encouraging stuff here you wouldn’t have backed us to come from behind and too many of those breaks, hurtling towards the Rookery in the second period, fizzled out with a wrong decision.  That’ll come.

5- And to be fair, it did.  I’d resigned myself to penalties, I suspect I wasn’t the only one… gazing across the pitch and wondering who might be up for a spot kick when suddenly one of those breaks connected, like a misfiring engine that suddenly, unexpectedly, clicks into gear.  Rose fed Cucho on the left, the Colombian cut a tremendous cross through to the far post where Fletcher was hurtling in to tuck the ball home.  The vigour of the celebration testified to the popularity of the goalscorer in the dressing room – whatever his future involvement there are worse ways to debut than scoring a late winner against Palace.

The visitors seemed suddenly energised and urgent, hilariously and too late.  Jeremy Ngakia had been replaced by Kiko, a welcome return for the Spaniard who nonetheless struggled with Zaha immediately, including in this short flurry… not the easiest opponent on your return from injury, but a spell that did Ngakia’s standing no harm in contrast to what had gone before.  Palace’s flurry burned out as Cucho lunged in to make a vital interception.  The whistle went, Troost-Ekong was the last man standing applauding the support and gifting his shirt to a kid at the front of the Rookery, fully redeemed.

Winning’s always good, beating Palace always better.  More than that we have evidence of a degree of cover, good options in the squad, if not in every position just yet.  But a clean sheet against top flight opposition welcome reassurance after Saturday.  We’re in this.

Yoooorns.

Foster 4, Ngakia 3, *Rose 4*, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Etebo 4, Louza 2, Sema 3, Fletcher 3, Hernández 3, King 3
Subs: Dennis (for King, 45) 3, Femenía (for Ngakia, 62) 2, Cleverley (for Sema, 76) NA, Cathcart, Alvarado, Baah, Elliot

Comments»

1. Roger Smith - 25/08/2021

Listening to the 3CR commentary, it seemed that Dennis was the talisman who changed the game in the second half, so surely deserves a 4?

Matt Rowson - 25/08/2021

My co-editor used to be quite rude to people sitting nearby who offered their views on ratings on BSaD. Heaven knows what he’d make of input from someone who didn’t see the game…

2. Harefield Hornet - 25/08/2021

I dished out some stick to my usual companions before the game. Only three out of the generally reliably dozen had bothered to turn up. I excused the 2 who went to Brighton but for goodness sake this is only the 3rd home game in 18 months for some and only the second for most ! Where is everyone ? And for about 53 minutes it seemed they were justified – then suddenly people on and off the pitch suddenly remembered why we were all there . Noise levels went up and the team started looking more likely to get a positive result . So a good win in normal time with a few pints after to celebrate ! Against our defacto rivals of recent years to boot ! A perfect Tuesday evening!

Matt Rowson - 25/08/2021

amen.

3. Jeff Lloyd - 25/08/2021

Not that many years ago this fixture was a guaranteed £10 adult £1 a kid. No matter that it’s 3rd game possible in 18 months, it’s a Carabao cup reserves-on-show game which needs some selling regardless.

On a different matter, I’m unconvinced that Ken Sema is the answer to anything other than ‘who’s the lanky fella who keeps losing the ball?’

Harefield Hornet - 26/08/2021

Very valid point about the entrance cost but this was hardly a side full of youth players as we’ve seen in recent years. Palace also put out a pretty strong side.

4. Ray Knight - 26/08/2021

Thanks Matt. Social distancing was no problem in the family stand. Or as the Palace fans sang ‘the library’. The standard of football was not EPL. Really impressed by Rose however despite as you say a sluggish start. WTE is always 20% better with Serralta as partner. Although he has his detractors for wayward passes, his quick recoveries after spotting a break are impressive. Ngakia shaded Kiko for me on his gutsy first half performance and Foster was Mr. Reliable. Further up the pitch we still need to sort ourselves out. But we did do an awful lot of defending which is a great warm up for Spurs. We need a strong midfield and Sarr, Dennis and Cucho up top to give them something to think about on the break.

5. JohnF - 26/08/2021

I was in the Elton John Stand with a friend I haven’t seen since the Liverpool game. When I got there it was very empty but it soon filled up and we were surrounded by families. The kids cheered everything and were determined to enjoy the whole experience. Absolutely great. The game was entertaining with both teams getting stuck in. We enjoyed getting the chance to watch players who we haven’t seen much of and Rose was doing what we expected in mentoring younger players, particularly Cucho. When we scored I thought the kids round us would take off. A truly family club. With a disrupted pre-season this was a very useful game and a great chance for some of the new players to play against a PL team. Very enjoyable,


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