After a summer of reflection, preparation and transfer activity, football was finally back in sunny South London, and what better team to face than Watford, a team Palace hadn’t lost to in their six previous meetings. Fresh-faced and revitalised with foreign loan signings and with their new pint-sized Italian at the helm, The Hornets were looking to build on last season where an 11th place finish saw them fall narrowly short of a play off place.
The home side gave starts to all four of their summer acquisitions and got off to a near perfect start as they took the lead just thirteen minutes in. Wilfried Zaha, continuing his explosive form from the previous season, did what he does best as he received the ball on the edge of the box, bamboozled three defenders and exploded in to the box, forcing John Eustace to react and tumble him down, much to the home crowd’s jubilance. Up stepped forever inconsistent playmaker Owen Garvan to fire home the penalty and lay the foundations to what turned out to be a thrilling afternoon – for neutrals and Watford fans at least.
Not disheartened by the goal evidently against the run of play, Watford pushed for an equaliser and shortly after rattling the bar through Garner, were rewarded in somewhat calamitous circumstances. Murray’s ambitious effort was spilled by the usually reliable Julian Speroni, and ginormous centre half Martin ‘leg breaker’ Taylor was on hand to bury the rebound.
Half an hour in, having resorted to the long ball due to our inability to make more than three passes between our midfield, Speroni’s long searching clearance was eventually brought down by the seemingly prolific Garvan, who showed a couple of nice touches before poking past Arsenal reject Manuel Almunia. So that was that for Dougie Freedman. Mission complete. We had the lead at half time so all that was left to do was sit back, invite pressure on the defence and hope for the best. Some things never change eh?
A comment on a Palace message board after the game summed up the performance. ‘Watford were poor, we were just worse.’ A distinct lack of communication and passing ability in the middle of the park saw our defence launch balls at the head of Aaron Wilbraham all afternoon, and on the rare occasion he won the header against their colossal defence there were no runners alert enough to penetrate. From then on the outcome was inevitable, and for the young Palace fans who had been looking forward to this game all summer it was heartbreaking. Watford’s super cool shirt sponsor of computer game ‘Football Manager’ seemed appropriate, as Zola’s Udinese super-sub Matej Vydra changed the game, a change reminiscent of the time Leigh Griffiths hopped off the bench to secure the Champions League for my Palace side against Barcelona one Friday night in my living room.
A menace to The Eagles from his introduction, Vydra’s movement caused problems and he troubled Speroni on a few occasions. From a Palace perspective, the second half was a boring encounter, made worse when another loanee pinched from Serie A, Almen Abdi, struck from 25 yards in the 88th minute as the away end erupted and the home end simultaneously emptied. So that’s it, we’d thrown away a lead, but a point on the opening day was okay right? Wrong. Deep into injury time, Palace’s defence, three of whom were debutants anyway, failed to clear their lines and the ball fell to the impressive Vydra, who bent the ball into the top corner as Speroni could only stand and watch.
A disappointing day for so many reasons, particularly as Freedman’s naive and negative tactics of last year seem to have continued and no improvement or progress has been made, both on and off the pitch. With many fans starting to call for his head already, it is going to need to be a huge turnaround before Freedman can start to feel comfortable again, as if we see many more performances akin to yesterday’s then relegation beckons. Fair play to Watford for digging deep and getting a deserved win, I just pray Freedman has a few signings up his sleeve otherwise the season could be over when it has barely just begun.