Watford have been unable to beat Crystal Palace at Vicarage Road for a seventh consecutive match following an absorbing goalless contest.

The Hornets dominated the first half but were unable to turn their superiority into an advantage and the Eagles took the opportunity to try and capitalise on this during a much-improved second-half display.

Javi Gracia’s men caught the eye with their positivity and urgency for large parts of the opening period, but the closest they were to come to taking the lead was from an early Stefano Okaka header which hit the bar.

Palace went one better in terms of hitting the woodwork in the second half – Luka Milivojevic and James Tomkins both doing so – but Wilfried Zaha, as has often been the case in fixtures between the two clubs, was involved in most of the game’s big talking points.

The Palace forward was involved in a flare-up late in the first half with Abdoulaye Doucoure after going to ground in the Hornets area, caught Orestis Karnezis with a boot early after the restart and was then booked for diving when he arguably had good reason to feel aggrieved by the decision going against him.

Following the disappointing performance in last weekend’s late 1-0 defeat at Huddersfield Town, Gracia decided to shake things up in terms of personnel and formation with a switch to 4-4-2.

Sebastian Prodl, as expected, missed out as a result of the stomach virus that affected the Hornets camp during the build-up, while Daryl Janmaat and Kiko Femenia dropped to the bench.

Christian Kabasele made his first appearance in almost three months after recovering from his hamstring injury, Jose Holebas returned after a back problem kept him out of the Terriers defeat and Okaka got the nod to partner Troy Deeney in an attacking pair.

Crystal Palace’s team news was more straightforward; they were unchanged from the side which started the 3-2 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion last time out.

Attacking the Rookery in the first half, the Hornets started positively and had their first opening inside three minutes when, following a Holebas long throw from the left which bounced around in the area, Will Hughes hit a low left-foot shot on the turn which went narrowly wide of the far post.

The Hornets were to go even closer less than 60 seconds later as Etienne Capoue gave Okaka the chance to run at the heart of the Palace defence, he laid the ball off to the supporting Doucoure, who in turn fed the overlapping Deeney on the right. The Hornets skipper then played in a good cross which Okaka met with a glancing header which struck the crossbar with Wayne Henessey beaten.

Backed by a loud support from the stands, Gracia’s side continued to play with an intensity and urgency that was so lacking for most of the game the previous week. And they had the chance to put the Palace defence under pressure again when Joel Ward was penalised for a foul on the left on Roberto Pereyra but Holebas got the free-kick all wrong and put the ball out for a throw.

Another chance came in the 20th minute when a ball forward was knocked down by Okaka, Deeney drilled in a low delivery from the right side of the 18-yard box and Ward inadvertently turned it towards his own goal, but Henessey was able to get across and save.

Pereyra once again had the beating of Ward soon after, the outcome was the same as previously in terms of a free-kick being awarded but this time referee Chris Kavanagh deemed the challenge worthy of a yellow card.

That free-kick was dealt with but soon after the Hornets won a corner which Holebas took from the left and the ball broke for Craig Cathcart, but he was unable to get hold of his shot and the Eagles stopper saved again.

The card count was levelled up in the 29th minute when Doucoure was booked for hauling down Reuben Loftus-Cheek, but the pattern of the game remained largely unchanged with the majority of the play towards the visitors’ goal.

It took until the 35th minute for Palace to have their first proper sight of goal when a deep Milivojevic free-kick from the left found Tomkins coming in around the back of the defence, but his downward header was comfortably dealt with by Karnezis.

Normal service was soon resumed though, as a lovely pass from Holebas found Hughes on the left side of the area, he found Pereyra to stand up a cross in the direction of Deeney but Hennessey came to punch clear.

But the situation that many may have anticipated going into the game was to arrive in the last minute of the half when Zaha and Kabasele got involved in a foot race and as the Hornets defender got back, the Palace forward went to ground in the area. He appealed for a penalty but Doucoure, needlessly and foolishly considering he was already on a yellow card, shoved Zaha, who responded in kind. Fortunately for the Hornets midfielder though, Kavanagh took a lenient view of the incident and opted against any further action.

Watford were quickly back on the front foot, with Deeney hitting a low drive from the area which was straight at Hennessey, before another incident saw frustration get the better of Patrick van Aanholt, who was booked for slamming the ball down as the opening period ended goalless.

Kavanagh had another decision to make at the start of the second half when Zaha sought to latch on to a chest down in the area and caught Karnezis with a raised boot. But, as previously, the referee dealt with the situation calmly and decided a talking to was sufficient.

Gracia was forced into an unwanted change nine minutes after the restart when Pereyra limped off and was replaced by Richarlison, although his pace would give the already-booked Ward something else to think about.

Adrian Mariappa became the second Watford player to be booked when he saw yellow on the hour for a blatant pull on Zaha, and there was an anxious moment soon after when he tripped the Palace man just outside the left edge of the area.

The end result was Palace went very close to scoring; Milivojevic curling a superb effort on to the frame of the goal before the Hornets desperately cleared their lines.

The drama was to continue as Hughes tried to challenge Zaha in the area, but when Mariappa attempted to get the ball in the same action, the Eagles forward went over. The referee though, decided Zaha had dived and booked him for simulation, replays showing there was a deliberate second leg movement as he went over otherwise he may well have got the benefit of the decision.

The visitors had been much better in the second half though, and went close again in the 69th minute when a corner from the right was headed down by  Tomkins and rebounded off Karnezis’ left-hand post, before the Hornets again scrambled clear.

Gracia made his second change in the 70th minute, with Okaka making way for Femenia, before there was at last some respite for the hosts with Richarlison shooting wide from a tight angle on the right side of the area.

The Hornets completed their substitutions in the 79th minute when Hughes made way for Andre Gray, but it was now the home side’s turn to enjoy a good second-half spell as Richarlison tested Hennessey with an angled drive.

James McArthur was then replaced by Christian Benteke but the chances were to dry up as the game neared its conclusion, with both Milivojevic and Cathcart receiving late yellow cards.

There were hearts in mouths as the game clicked into three minutes of injury time as Zaha picked out a completely unmarked Andros Townsend coming in at the back post, but his blushes were spared by a linesman’s flag after heading back across goal and wide.

Three minutes of stoppage time afforded both teams the opportunity to try and force a late winner; neither was able to do so as a good game ended without a goal.

Watford: Karnezis; Mariappa, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes (Gray 79, Doucoure, Capoue, Pereyra (Richarlison 54); Okaka (Femenia 70), Deeney. Subs not used: Gomes, Janmaat, Britos, Sinclair.

Crystal Palace: Henessey; Ward, Tomkins, Sakho, Van Aanholt; McArthur (Benteke 81), Cabaye, Milivojevic, Loftus-Cheek; Townsend, Zaha. Subs not used: Speroni, Sorloth, Chung-Yong, Wan-Bissaka, Kelly, Riedewald.

Bookings: Ward for a foul on Peryra (21); Doucoure for a foul on Loftus-Cheek (29); Van Aanholt for dissent (45); Mariappa for a foul on Zaha (60); Zaha for simulation (64); Milivojevic for a foul on Richarlison (88); Cathcart for a foul on Zaha (90).

Attendance: 20,401.

Referee: Chris Kavanagh.