Crystal Palace and Watford offer up something of a conundrum for the TV schedulers. Both clubs do not enjoy a widespread national support and both have old stadiums ill-suited to the myriad paraphernalia required for broadcasters to set up their gear. A combination of both factors make either club an unattractive prospect so by putting the match between the two on the telly, two crows are killed with a single high definition stone.
The conundrum lies in that despite an shortage of TV eyeballs, both teams are actually worth watching. Both teams are play-off contenders on the back of some cracking football. The home side have joined the Pozzo family and are enjoying the benefits of their sister club Udinese with some promising youngster coached by professional nice guy, Gianfranco Zola. Palace meanwhile are ran by a consortium of fans turned businessman who insist upon running the club sensibly and recently pledged to put the money from the transfer of Wilfried Zaha towards the reconstruction of the stadium. In Ian Holloway they have a coach who is committed to attacking football and sets his team up with an agreeable playing style. All terribly right-on.
Somewhat unexpectedly then Watford v Palace on Sky has become a game for football heads everywhere and it was a game that did not disappoint.
Watford have taken some stick for their recruitment policy this season after being taken over by the Pozzo family who also own Udinese and Granada from Italy and Spain respectively. Many of Watford's players are on loan from the Serie A club and critics complain that this is unfair and not in the spirit of the game. I personally see no problem with three clubs under the same owner pooling their resources and if the end result is the blistering and crisp football that Watford played, especially in the first half an hour of the game then I reckon more people will set aside their misgivings.
The home side set the tone for the game with an aggressive pacey attack on a Palace defence not yet attuned. They played with a high tempo with clean and precise passing that blew the visitors away. If the English game adopts this style of play as a model for the future then the future is a good place to be. Alme Abdi is one of a number Swiss youngsters breaking through the professional ranks in Europe. A zippy attacker his goal after seven minutes was a cut inside from the flank after a shocking attempt clearance from Palace's Jazz Richards. His run and shot was as much about his technique as it was the Palace back line's trauma. After 14 minutes Nathaniel Chabolah's second goal was totally reflective of the balance of play and I took a long swig of beer in preparation of what was likely to be a slaughter.
Rather than turn to the dubious company of Bacchus, Palace manager, Ian Holloway, was in a position to do something. For a moment I wondered if he'd try to take the pace out of the game or maybe garner a few more yellow cards by kicking Abdi, Chabolah and nineteen goal striker Matej Vydra up in the air but no. Instead he maintained the game's ludicrous pace and more significantly moved Wilfried Zaha off the flank and played him through the middle. This ploy worked an absolute treat. Zaha, revelled in the extra space while the Watford defence figured out who was supposed to be looking after him. In my mind's ear I imagined a conversation between Sir Alex Ferguson and Ian Holloway after the sale of Zaha to Manchester United and subsequent loan back to the Selhurst club. He would have told Holloway that he could see Zaha playing in the middle one day and bolstered by this insight, the Palace boss thought he'd give it a crack. Fantasy, I know, but then the beer was flowing freely by that point.
Eventually, Palace regained their composure and by half time the match, if not the score, was even. Then came Holloway's second intervention: the half time substitution of Jonathan Williams. None of the pub-mates I was with had seen the Welsh Under 21 player but by the final whistle they knew exactly who he was. The 19 year old dubbed "Joniesta" by the Palace fans took full advantage of the tiring Watford legs down the flank and through the middle. Williams can run with the ball and has the imagination to choose the right pass. He made a mess of the opposition and finished the game with the Man Of The Match Champagne despite having only played in half of it. Between him and Zaha enough pressure was put on the home side and finally a breakthrough was made thanks to what can politely be described as a moment of hesitation by Watford keeper Manuel Almunia which allowed Peter Ramage to larrup the ball home from all of two yards, give or take.
Holloway's final intervention came through the introduction of Kevin Phillips who is on loan from Blackpool. The former Watford striker will be 40 in July but despite the years he still knows how to pop up at the back post, especially late in a game. He met Richards' redemptive cross in characteristic fashion and finished off a memorable comeback after 70 minutes. What a guy.
The pace of the game had wilted with about ten minutes to go but neither team seemed satisfied with a point. There were no further goals however and this would have pleased the football gods as there was no worthy loser in this match.