Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace reign began with a 1-1 draw at Watford, with Christian Benteke’s penalty miss proving costly for the visitors.
The former England manager succeeded in coaxing an improved performance from some of the players whose poor form had contributed to predecessor Alan Pardew being sacked, and they were on course to win as he resumed his Premier League career at the same ground he oversaw his last match with Sunderland.
Yohan Cabaye’s first-half finish had given Palace the lead as they pursued only a fifth league win of the season, but the penalty that ended substitute Troy Deeney’s long wait for his 100th Watford goal delivered a reminder to Allardyce of the relegation battle which lies ahead. It could all have been very different if Benteke had converted a first-half penalty chance, but his weak effort was comfortably saved by Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes.
One of the unavoidable conclusions at the time of Pardew’s departure was that, despite a strong team and significant money spent on the £13million Andros Townsend among others, individuals like the England international were continuing to under-perform.
Townsend had requested to play on the right wing earlier in the season, but after Pardew chose to retain Wilfried Zaha there he struggled on the left before being dropped.
Rebuilding his form and confidence appeared an obvious way of instantly improving Palace’s fortunes, so it was perhaps little surprise he was recalled to start on the right, with Zaha on the left.
There was also only a second start for another of Pardew’s summer signings, Mathieu Flamini, and a vastly-improved performance from the £10million Cabaye, another too often below his best.
It was Cabaye who provided Palace’s first true goal threat, in the 25th minute with a shot just wide of the left post after Benteke’s poor control conceded possession, and only a minute later the Frenchman had given the Eagles the lead.
Townsend had done well to win the ball on the right wing before turning brilliantly and playing Cabaye through on goal, where with time and space he casually finished into the bottom left corner beyond the onrushing Gomes.
Cabaye had again shot just wide of the left post when, in the 37th minute, a poor back pass from Sebastian Prodl gifted the ball to Benteke, who was then brought down in the area by the exposed Gomes.
Watford had posed so little of an attacking threat that a second goal looked likely to prove decisive, but Benteke – completely lacking in any conviction – casually stroked the ball to the right and close to Gomes, giving the goalkeeper an easy save.
30% – Of all PL keepers to face 20+ penalties, only David Seaman (32%) has a better save % than Heurelho Gomes (30% – saved 9/30). Stopper.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 26, 2016
Palace needlessly allowed their hosts to pull level when, from a routine 70th-minute corner, Damien Delaney clumsily brought down Prodl to leave referee Mark Clattenburg with little choice but to award the game’s second penalty.
Substitute Deeney, who had gone his past 10 games without a goal and who unexpectedly had been left out of Walter Mazzarri’s starting XI, then powerfully struck straight down the middle and beyond Wayne Hennessey who had dived to his left.
An increasingly scrappy second half ensured neither team could find a winning goal, leaving Palace with a record of one win in 11, and Watford with two in eight.