Crystal Palace grind out a point at Watford to edge closer to safety

Ed Aarons at Vicarage Road on 21 April 2018

Wilfried Zaha must be wondering what it is about this stadium. The last time he was here, in December 2016, the Crystal Palace forward reacted angrily when he was accused of diving by the Watford mascot, Harry the Hornet, after winning a penalty for his side.

Nearly 18 months on, Zaha once more found himself embroiled in controversy after three incidents that – depending on your opinion – could have ended with him being shown a red card or awarded two penalties.

In the end, the hard-earned point that pushes his side a step closer to safety will provide some solace for the Ivory Coast international on a day when he ran the opposition defence ragged at times.

Watford’s traditional poor springtime form meant they had gone five matches without a victory, conceding 15 goals in the process, so the decision to pair the Italy international Stefano Okaka in attack with Troy Deeney was a brave one with the former chairman Elton John, watching on from the stands. Yet it almost paid off as early as the fourth minute when Deeney found space on the right and his cross was headed against the crossbar by Okaka.

Prompted by the dominance of the excellent Abdoulaye Doucouré in midfield, the strike duo continued to cause Palace’s defence problems throughout the first half, with Joel Ward lucky to escape as Deeney’s cross-shot cannoned off him and into the arms of Wayne Hennessey.

In contrast, Palace struggled to create any forward momentum as the makeshift strikers, Zaha and Andros Townsend, found space limited with their backs to goal. A header by James Tomkins from Townsend’s free-kick that was easy saved by Orestis Karnezis was the best they could muster.

The half’s moment of controversy was saved for just before the break when Zaha went down in the box under a clumsy challenge from Christian Kabasele.

Doucouré immediately rushed over to confront him and was lucky to escape a second booking for pushing the Palace forward in the chest having only just been cautioned for a tackle on Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Chris Kavanagh waved away Zaha’s appeals for a penalty but, significantly as it turned out, did not produce a card.

Watford’s supporters were incensed and their mood did not improve after the break when Zaha escaped a caution for his late challenge on Karnezis.

Palace’s talisman was back in the thick of the action when he was felled by Adrian Mariappa on the edge of the box and Luka Milivojevic’s free-kick struck the bar.

Moments later the referee showed Zaha the yellow card after ruling he had dived under pressure from Mariappa and Will Hughes during a goalmouth scramble, delighting the home fans if not Roy Hodgson.

“I try hard not to be the person who bellyaches but having seen it again, it was a pretty clear penalty decision,” he said. “Reputation is a dangerous thing. Who gives them the reputation? Where he has suffered is that other managers have given you their version of the story and branded him someone who dives for penalties. Of course, the more it is written or spoken about, the more the legend will circulate. He is anything other than a cheat or a diver. He is sometimes far too desperate to stay on his feet and score a goal himself.”

To his credit, Javi Gracia refused to take the bait.

“I didn’t see it – there were many players around him. There are many situations around Zaha because he has that style of play,” the Watford manager said. “It was a very, very difficult day for the referee.”

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