Match Report: Watford 0-0 Crystal Palace
By Kevin Affleck
In case he wasn't aware, Nigel Pearson now knows exactly the task facing him but knows, on the evidence of this spirited showing at home in an all-action game with Crystal Palace, he has a group of players ready to potentially dog it out and scrap, which is just what he'll be after and just how he likes it.
There were no goals and no three points at home, which is the currency we need to be dealing it right now, but Pearson would have seen enough to know he has plenty to work with and a group with a bit of character about it. At full-time, you had Christian Kabasele remonstrating with Luka Milivojević, Étienne Capoue taking issue with Wilfried Zaha and Troy Deeney arguing his team's case with referee Martin Atkinson. And that was on the back of Deeney and Andre Gray helping the shattered and excellent Ismaïla Sarr to his feet at the death before one last throw of the dice. There was nobody down on their haunches, nobody flat on their back and nobody feeling sorry for themselves. The crowd recognised it, appreciated it and showed at full-time they will remain with the team during this fight.
Hayden Mullins couldn't really have asked much more in his final game in interim charge. The Hornets had a right go, producing 13 shots to Palace's three, forcing three times as many corners while at the same time keeping the back door locked to the extent Palace didn't muster a single shot on target. There was only one team looking to win this one. Pearson will therefore inherit a solid base and this is certainly a much more attractive scenario than the one that required Leicester to win seven from their final nine games in 2015. Pearson would have been encouraged by what he saw here but would also have seen plenty to work on and plenty to tweak.
It was all huff and puff, helter-skelter stuff in the first half. There was only four shots on target, and none of those were on target, which kind of told you the story about events at the business end of the pitch. The major subplot was the annual sideshow with Zaha.
He was histrionic after a run-in with Étienne Capoue, was booked for a late tackle on Kabasele and even left one Sarr. He had to be calmed down by Roy Hodgson on at least two occasions. It was classic pantomime stuff at this festive time of the season.
Sarr was actually the more threatening and lively of the African wingers on show. Every attacking surge the Hornets made, every time they asked a question it came from the Senegal winger down the right. He slung over two crosses inside the first 11 minutes that required emergency clearances, left Jeffrey Schlupp and James McArthur for dead during one jet-heeled foray and was even back in his own box dispossessing Schlupp on one occasion. It was terrific stuff from the club-record signing who was helped by the fact that, behind him, Kiko Femenía had his best game in yonks.
Mullins didn't need to do much at the break, just ask for more of the same and hope his side kept knocking on the door, kept being the more progressive of the two sides. After a quiet first half, Deulofeu came to life within the opening minutes of the second period and stroked one just past the post on the run after a flick-on from Deeney. The Spaniard then popped up on the other side and flashed one across the face that Sarr almost poked in on the run.
Sarr was a real live-wire and it took two superb pieces of defending from Gary Cahill, one in the air and one wonderful last-ditch tackle, to deny the forward in quick succession towards the end. It was top-class defending from the England international. Sarr managed to bypass him with a ball from left to the right near the end, but Andre Gray, on as a substitute, didn't manage to connect with it sweetly enough. It was the sort of chance Gray gobbled up when coming off the bench in the second half of last season.
There was a late penalty shout when Cahill put his arm around the neck of Deeney in what looked a far more obvious foul than the one given against Adam Masina at the King Power on Wednesday night, but it's a sign of the way things are going right now that there wasn't even a VAR check. Still, we keep fighting and keep believing.
HORNETS | Foster; Femenía, Kabasele, Cathcart, Masina; Doucouré (Chalobah 78), Capoue; Sarr, Deulofeu, Pereyra (Gray 77); Deeney (C).
Subs not used. Gomes, Mariappa, Hughes, Success and Foulquier