Roy Hodgson must be sick of the sight of Watford. A third 2-1 defeat of the season to Javi Gracia’s side after the substitute Andre Gray’s late winner dashed Crystal Palace’s chances of reaching Wembley will certainly not live long in the memory for their manager and his erstwhile assistant Ray Lewington, who had been hailed by the home supporters on his return to Vicarage Road.
Without the injured Wilfried Zaha, who had been ruled out with a calf injury, at least Palace finally showed some fighting spirit after Étienne Capoue had opened the scoring in the first half before Michy Batshuayi’s equaliser. But having seen his players given the runaround for most of a blustery afternoon by the impressive Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra, Hodgson can have no real complaints about the result.
In the absence of Zaha – so often the pantomime villain in these parts in recent years – the former England manager had selected Max Meyer behind his front two of Andros Townsend and Batshuayi as they attempted to bounce back from the disappointing home defeat to Brighton in front of 3,000 travelling supporters.
Yet having lost both matches against Gracia’s side in the Premier League this season, Watford have started to become somewhat of a bogey team for Palace since their victory over them at the semi-final stage of this competition on their way to the final three years ago.
Even in the wake of heavy defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City in the league, the hosts would certainly have fancied their chances even more when Zaha’s absence was confirmed before kick-off, having never lost an FA Cup tie to Palace in four matches at Vicarage Road.
Palace have proved this season that they are capable of winning without their talisman and made a promising start as Luka Milivojevic tested Heurelho Gomes from outside the box early on. But Watford, who had seen off Woking, Newcastle and QPR to reach this stage, appeared to determined to make the most of their opportunity and could easy have gone ahead in the 16th minute when Deulofeu’s shot was well saved by Vicente Guaita.
They did not have to wait long to take the lead, however, as the goalkeeper’s fumble from a corner allowed Capoue to instinctively stick out a foot and stab the ball into the empty net. It could have been even worse for the visitors had Guaita not been alert enough to save from Deulofeu once again seconds after the restart as Palace looked in danger of being blown away in the swirling wind.
The former Barcelona forward was a constant menace throughout the first half and tested his compatriot with a curling free-kick, although Palace also had a sniff of goal when Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s clever chip almost set up Meyer for a volley. The visitors simply had to improve in the second half and could have equalised within four minutes had Meyer connected properly with Townsend’s corner, with Gomes doing just enough to claw the ball away.
Gracia had been forced to withdraw the reliable José Holebas for the second half after the veteran defender clashed with Townsend just before half-time and suddenly Palace began to find some joy down the left flank he had vacated, with Townsend seeing his free-kick tipped over the crossbar by Gomes.
Batshuayi, who scored in the crucial league wins at Leicester and Burnley, also snatched at a half chance moments before his equaliser – a passage of play that will surely give Adrian Mariappa nightmares. Admittedly, the former Palace defender was put under pressure by a poor goal-kick from Gomes but his failure to clear allowed the striker on loan from Chelsea to race through and slot into the far corner for his sixth goal in the competition from just 10 appearances.
More good work from Batshuayi have been resulted in a second, only for Meyer to once more fluff his lines in the box. Abdoulaye Doucouré was the next to put his head in his hands after somehow contriving to volley over following another save from Guaita at the other end.
Given the nature of those misses, it was always likely to take something special to win the tie and it came 10 minutes from time in the form of Pereyra’s cross for Gray to volley home two minutes after he had come off the bench.