Watford spurned a great opportunity to move into the automatic promotion places as they let slip a two-goal interval lead and fellow play-off hopefuls Crystal Palace battled back to earn a deserved 2-2 draw in front of the live TV cameras at Vicarage Road tonight.
It was almost the clichéd game of two halves from the Hornets, who played with style and confidence for large periods of the first half but after the break seemed unsure what to do from their position of strength. They sat increasingly deep, the quality of their ball retention and passing got worse as they were over-run in midfield with the visitors' half-time substitute Jonathan Williams very influential, and ultimately Gianfranco Zola’s men were holding on for a point.
It had all started so well for Watford as Almen Abdi fired them into a sixth-minute lead with a fine strike before Nathaniel Chalobah double the advantage seven minutes later.
The Hornets had further chances to wrap up the points before the interval but the visitors started to establish a foothold in the contest and then took control for prolonged periods after the break. And once Peter Ramage had pulled one back on 66 minutes, there was a sense Palace would get another and it came just four minutes later from Vicarage Road old boy Kevin Phillips.
Matej Vydra was in the starting line-up after the Pozzos sent a private jet to bring him back from international duty with the Czech Republic on Wednesday but Zola did make two changes from the side which beat Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.
Joel Ekstrand failed to recover from the knee injury that forced him to pull out of Sweden’s mid-week friendly against Argentina. With Nyron Nosworthy also unavailable after being away with Jamica, Tommie Hoban returned for his first appearance since New Year’s Day.
The other change was through choice as Jonathan Hogg came back into the starting line-up at the expense of Cristian Battocchio, who dropped to the bench.
The game was also particularly significant for Lloyd Doyley, who joined a very select band of Watford players to make 350 league appearances for the club.
Palace picked up their first win since New Year’s Day when they beat Charlton Athletic 2-1 last time out and Ian Holloway opted to make just the one change, with Stephen Dobbie replacing Stuart O’Keefe. That meant Phillips had to settle for a place on the bench on his latest return to the club where he started his professional career.
The Hornets began confidently and Julian Speroni was the first keeper called into action in the second minute, diving to his left to push a stinging 20-yard effort from Abdi away for a corner after Daniel Pudil had laid the ball back to the Swiss midfielder from the left.
The resultant set-piece was half-cleared to outside the right edge of the area where it was worked to Abdi, who laid the ball inside to Vydra but unusually for Watford’s ace marksman he snatched his shot high and wide, although he did have to rush the strike.
It took referee Michael Naylor just four minutes to get his cards out, although Fitz Hall could have few complaints about seeing yellow following a clear late challenge on Yannick Bolasie. But within two minutes the Hornets had made the breakthrough in impressive fashion.
There didn’t appear to be too much on as Vydra pursued Ashley Richards towards the left-hand corner but the Eagles right-back’s clearance was poor and latched on to by Abdi. He came inside on his right foot before curling a lovely low right-footed shot past the helpless Speroni from around 20 yards to make it 1-0.
The visitors sought an instant response and they weren’t too far away from getting it when Dobbie unleashed a right-footed drive from the edge of the area which Manuel Almunia had to push around his right-hand post.
Watford were playing with real confidence though, and in the 14th minute they opened up clear daylight over Holloway’s men.
Vydra chanced his arm with a shot from the left edge of the area which was blocked but the ball spun towards the right side of the penalty box where Marco Cassetti was in space. The Italian went for goal with a right-footed half-volley but he struck the ball into the ground, sending it towards the far post where both Chalobah and Tommie Hoban anticipated something might break and the England Under-21 midfielder rose to head in from a tight angle and make it 2-0.
There was a brief moment of alarm when Bolasie was allowed to advance towards the edge of the 18-yard box before striking a right-footed drive over. But twice Vydra could have made it 3-0 before the 25th minute.
First he uncharacteristically didn’t anticipate when a slip from a Palace defender allowed a low Cassetti cross to fizz across the six-yard box before another fine delivery from the former Roma man picked out the head of the Czech international but he slightly mistimed his leap and guided a fine opportunity wide of the far post.
Palace had been on the back foot but they enjoyed a decent spell approaching the half-hour mark, starting with Almunia rather shovelling a Glenn Murray header behind for a corner. The Championship’s top scorer then headed the resultant set piece over the top before, from the visitors’ next move, Dobbie fired a right-footed shot into the side netting.
The card count was levelled up in the 32nd minute when Alex Marrow cynically went through the back of Chalobah. The on-loan Chelsea youngster was struggling for a couple of minutes afterwards but after some treatment he was able to continue.
Holloway’s side continued to try and push for a way back into the game as the opening half entered its closing stages. Their opponents though, were defending well, although Dobbie was allowed to curl a shot from outside the area three minutes before the break which didn’t unduly trouble Almunia.
Watford had the next opportunity in the last minute of the half when a Daniel Pudil cross from the left was headed away to Chalobah. He played it forward to Vydra, who turned it on to Abdi but Watford’s first goalscorer was unable to keep his shot on the turn down.
Abdi had another opportunity in stoppage time when his side were awarded a free-kick towards the left edge of the area and his right-footed free-kick was deflected narrowly wide of the far post.
The Palace boss made a change to his midfield at the start of the second half, bringing on Williams for Marrow. But the visitors had to wait until the 53rd minute for their first attempt of the half when a Dobbie long-range effort was deflected behind.
After the corner had come to nothing, Holloway made his second change, with Phillips replacing Bolasie before Kagisho Dikgacoi let fly from 25 yards and the shot wasn’t too far over Almunia’s bar.
Palace’s best chance of getting back into the game to date came and went just short of the hour-mark when a Wilfried Zaha cross-shot from the right side of the area struck Murray right in front of goal. But the 24-goal striker was unable to react quickly enough to divert the ball past Almunia.
After Cassetti had been booked for a foul on Williams, Zola decided to make his first change and Fernando Forestieri came on for Vydra, who had looked jaded after being away on international duty.
But in the 66th minute, the visitors were back in the game when a corner from the right was blocked on the line by a combination of Almunia, Doyley and Phillips. With the substitute standing his ground, the two Hornets players were unable to clear their lines and Ramage quickest to slam the ball into the net.
The goal had been coming though, because Watford’s ball retention had been shocking since the interval and they had been pushed back but were also inviting pressure on themselves at times.
Within four minutes, Palace were back on terms.
Forestieri initially looked like he might have come out of the situation with credit when he tracked back with Zaha and slid in to make the challenge. However, he only succeeded in diverting the ball into the path of Richards, who had continued his run forward down the right, and he sent over a cross that Phillips met on the volley and dispatched it emphatically past Almunia to level things up at 2-2.
Watford were rocking but in the 73rd minute they thought they’d taken the lead again when Forestieri appeared to shake off a challenge and pulled the ball back to Troy Deeney, who tapped into the guarded net, only for the goal to be ruled out for a foul by the Argentine.
However, the momentum was firmly with the visitors and the Hornets were almost undone again when Zaha was allowed to squeeze in a low cross from the right and Ramage spun and hit the side netting.
A frustrated Chalobah was booked for kicking the ball away before Holloway made his final change, replacing Dobbie with Butterfield and then the Chelsea loanee made way for Battocchio.
Daniel Pudil was the next name to be taken by the referee for a foul on Zaha, even though the foul was committed by Hoban, and from the resultant free-kick on the right side of the area Ramage planted a header straight at Almunia.
There were to be no further openings in four minutes of stoppage time but while there was a sense of frustration after Watford had let a two-goal interval lead slip, there were also feelings of relief after a very disappointing display after the break.
Watford: Almunia; Doyley, Hall, Hoban; Cassetti, Chalobah (Battocchio 89), Hogg, Abdi, Pudil; Deeney, Vydra (Forestieri 65). Not used: Eustace, Yeates, S Murray, Bond and Geijo.
Crystal Palace: Speroni; Richards, Ramage, Delaney, Moxey; Dikgacoi, Marrow (Williams 46); Zaha, Dobbie (Butterfield 86), Bolasie (Phillips 54); G Murray. Not used: Parr, Wilbraham, O’Keefe and Price.
Bookings: Hall for a foul on Bolasie (4); Marrow for a foul on Chalobah (32); Cassetti for a foul on Williams (65); G Murray for a foul on Pudil (81); Chlobah for dissent (86); Pudil for a foul on Zaha (90).
Attendance: 15,079 (2,217 away).
Referee: Michael Naylor.