When two of the league’s lowest scorers come together with an awful lot at stake, a goal fest is unlikely to ensue. Even as Jordan Ayew created the space to fire past Ben Foster on the half hour it felt as if it was the decisive moment of the match, and so it proved to be.
Crystal Palace and Watford entered this game with 52 goals between them and ended it with 53. That is still fewer than Leicester City have managed by themselves. For Watford this is a distinct concern, a solitary goal being all that is keeping them out of the relegation zone. For Palace, however, parsimony has allowed them to grind out three 1-0 wins on the trot and earned them another season in the Premier League, just about.
“To go from 30 points to 39 is a fantastic yield and we’ve done it with nine games to go,” said Roy Hodgson. “I really cannot imagine how the players are suddenly going to let that go. You do never know and it would be very foolish of me to say that it can’t happen. But it’s in our hands.”
The match had begun in the style of two zealously polite individuals standing in a doorway; after you, sir; no, please, after you. With both teams preferring to play on the counterattack, neither really wanted the ball. For a while this suited Watford best as they created the early chances. But the clarity they showed in driving forward was not matched by decisiveness in front of goal.
Abdoulaye Doucouré, Ismaïla Sarr and Roberto Pereyra all had chances to open the scoring, before Palace took the lead with a move that echoed their opponents but found a cutting edge too. Christian Benteke started it, seizing the ball on the halfway line and turning back to goal. An interchange of passes in the box ended with Ayew. The Ghanaian took two quick touches then bent a right-footed shot beyond Ben Foster. It was the Ghanaian’s eighth league goal of the season and his second winner in consecutive matches.
“The players understand why we haven’t won and it’s because we have’t converted our chances,” Nigel Pearson said, a week after fielding plaudits for his side’s victory over Liverpool. “It’s not through a lack of desire for sure. I know that we’ve got goals in us and know we’re a competitive side. In relegation battles you have to accept that you can’t often replicate your best performance week in, week out.”
Hodgson joked that whatever Pearson’s opinion had been of the game, he shared it. They are two coaches with similar, pragmatic outlooks to both tactics and man management. Hodgson was also straightforward when dealing with the possibility of being banned from his own stadium.
Reports at the weekend had suggested one proposal to counter the spread of coronavirus could see septuagenarians banned from matches. Hodgson is now 72 and said: “We will have to follow [the ban] if it happens but we’ll worry about it when it comes. I assume they’re thinking to protect us, as it’s people who are older who are at risk. But I feel very healthy and things we are doing at this club are going to keep me healthy.”