BY SAM SMITH AT SELHURST PARK
At the end of a week in which manager Roy Hodgson signed a contract extension, Crystal Palace celebrated with a performance that did not just typify their season, but also the 72-year-old’s wider tenure.
This 1-0 victory over Watford capped off a positive eight days for the Eagles. They had beaten their biggest rivals Brighton and Hove Albion away from home. Hodgson’s future had been sorted, ending any doubts about who would be managing the club next season.
And then, for the second week in a row, Jordan Ayew scored the only goal of the game to earn a third successive win. It is an upturn in form for Palace, who had failed to win any of the previous eight games in all competitions before beating Newcastle United two weeks ago. Before that, they sat on 30 points and were looking precariously over their shoulder.
Until Burnley drew against Tottenham Hotspur later on Saturday evening, Palace sat in the top half of the table. Had you offered that to Hodgson a month ago, he would have snapped off your hand.
This was a battling and gritty performance from Hodgson’s Palace. When they do that and win, it is enjoyable to watch. The attacking trio of Ayew, Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke are beginning to flourish. James McArthur and Cheikhou Kouyate rotate in supplying support from midfield.
In a fixture largely known for its fouls and, in particular, Watford’s incessant targeting of Zaha, it was largely cagey and lacking in substantial action. That suits this Palace side. A reliable back four is happy to sit deep and soak pressure. When Zaha and Ayew are up front, they need only half a chance to score a goal and that was proved true again here.
At times it seemed there were more petty scuffles than shots on target. The best example being when Etienne Capoue bowed his head into Zaha to wind up the Ivorian – barely making contact with the Palace winger. Zaha responded by pushing the Watford midfielder’s head away. It was almost laughable that there was a VAR check for violent conduct.
The Hornets were unhappy when Zaha went down easily under a challenge by Will Hughes late in the second half while already on a yellow card, and perhaps they had more of an argument for a red card in that instance.
It was eventually a moment of brilliance that won Palace the game. That has been a consistent theme this season and throughout Hodgson’s two and-a-half years in charge. It used to be Zaha, Andros Townsend, Yohan Cabaye or Ruben Loftus-Cheek who would win a game with individual skill, but this season they have found a new talisman in Ayew.
It was with their first meaningful attack that Palace led. The plethora of experience across the pitch then naturally managed the game to its conclusion – just as it had done for the two weeks prior and for the majority of Hodgson’s reign.
A patient attack finally found Ayew on the edge of the box. Having seen other players pass in similar positions, an increasingly frustrated crowd urged the Ghanaian to test Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster. Ayew shuffled to create some space before quickly firing powerfully into the corner of the net.
That the 28-year-old was surrounded by Watford defenders made the goal even more remarkable.
Ayew’s ability to create a chance for himself with quick feet and a clinical finish when the odds are stacked against him is reminiscent of Andrew Johnson. That the Selhurst Park faithful have adorned him with the same chant they used to sing for Johnson only adds to the comparison.
It seemed breaking Liverpool’s year-long wait for a league defeat last weekend might have taken its toll on the visitors.
Vicente Guaita was only truly tested when Troy Deeney powered a shot towards the top corner from 30 yards midway through the second half. The Spaniard did well to get across to tip the ball over the bar.
There are still some teething problems for Palace.
When Patrick van Aanholt advances forward, Cahill is usually left isolated against the opposition’s right winger if possession is turned over. Watford’s pacey Ismaila Sarr had the beating of the former Chelsea centre-back during the first half but Palace finally nullified that threat.
Against Brighton, a similar problem was encountered when Solly March continually found space beyond Van Aanholt. Without a left-footed midfielder, there was nobody who would naturally move across to cover until Jairo Riedewald came on for the second half. The threat was then eradicated.
Otherwise, Hodgson will be delighted with the 11 who have started the last three games – winning each while not conceding a goal. They are in with a chance of beating last season’s points tally of 49.
If they do, it would signal constant improvement under Hodgson.
Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 7, Ward 6, Dann 5, Cahill 6, Van Aanholt 6, McArthur 5 (Milivojevic 70, 5), Kouyate 6, McCarthy 6, Ayew 7, Benteke 5, Zaha 6. Not used: Hennessey, Kelly, Riedewald, Schlupp, Meyer, Townsend.
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