Manchester United are renowned for conjuring up dramatic finishes and two of their former charges showed they have lost none of that art by inspiring a dramatic turnaround for the Hornets with two goals in five stunning second-half minutes.
The Hornets were trailing to a comical own goal from Craig Cathcart on 38 minutes and you wondered how they were going to find a way back into this one. It had a 1-0 defeat written all over it as you couldn’t fathom where the Hornets were going to get one goal from, let alone two.
But, firstly and out of nowhere really, Cathcart headed in the equaliser on 68 minutes and then his big mate Cleverley cracked in the winner five minutes later. It was Cleverley’s first goal in more than a year. What a time to get it.
The three points perhaps made up for the countless times this season the Hornets haven’t got what they deserved and meant the sore that developed after the late implosion here last season was healed somewhat. It was also nice little way to mark the two-year anniversary of the passing of Graham Taylor. The club’s greatest ever manager loved a set-piece and it was kind of fitting that both goals originated from dead-ball situations, the first from a José Holebas corner and the second following a throw.
And yet the start to the game mirrored so many this season. The Hornets seized the early initiative, set up camp in the opposition half and fashioned not one golden chance, but two. Gerard Deulofeu again did all the hard work in finding himself one-v-one, nut-megging James Tomkins, but he could only roll his effort against the post. The ball rolled out to top-scorer Roberto Pereyra and you expected him to stroke the rebound into the back of the largely unguarded net, but he hit virtually the same part of the post as Deulofeu. It was hard to believe how two players of such quality had failed to hit the target.
The blow of the double missed chance seemed to deflate the players, as if they had seen the script several times before and knew how this one would pan out. They were not quite at it, didn’t play with the same bite and intensity and it was up there with the first-half against Newcastle at home in terms of flatness.
Palace, it has to be said, were not great either. Wilfried Zaha didn’t touch the ball until the fifth minute and it took the Eagles until the tenth minute to trouble Ben Foster, the Watford keeper easily handling a long-range effort from Zaha.
The Hornets suffered a blow around the 20-minute mark when Will Hughes was ordered off by the medical team after failing concussion protocol. By bringing on Ken Sema, it meant a straight swap for Javi Gracia, very much like for like. The final instruction to Sema would have been on the lines of helping Kiko Femenía out with Zaha and the pair largely did that well.
What the Hornets didn’t do quite so well was defend a ball into the box on 38 minutes, just like they didn’t at Bournemouth. A corner from Luka Milivojević should really have been cleared at the near post, but it wasn’t and then they made a dog’s dinner of clearing the loose ball. After a mini game of pinball, Doucouré slammed a clearance into Cathcart and the ball trickled over the line. It was a horrible goal to concede, especially just seven minutes before half-time.
Deulofeu threatened to get his side back on level terms before the break with a slaloming run down the left, but he could only slam his shot in the side-netting. Not long before that, Troy Deeney directed a header just past the post from a Holebas cross. The captain’s reaction suggested he felt he should have done better.
You hoped the Hornets would come out for the second half with a bit more purpose, but the signs were not great when Doucouré was caught dallying on the ball by Jordan Ayew and it needed Foster to get him out of jail with a save to deny Zaha.
Foster was it again just past the hour mark when he produced a flying save to keep out a long-range effort from Milivojević. They turned out to be crucial saves from the former England ‘keeper as they kept his side in the hunt, kept them within range and believing they could still turn it around.
You half wondered if it might take a goal from an unlikely source to get the Hornets back into this one as all the likely routes had hit the buffers. And it so it proved, Cathcart stealing in at the far post to get his head just in front of James Tomkins and head past Wayne Hennessey and into the roof of the net.
There would have been a few packed into the corner of the Arthur Waite stand who might have taken a point at the stage, happy to get out of Selhurst Park with a point after seeing their side not really playing at their best. But they were made to recalibrate their expectations when Cleverley, who had only been on for four minutes, showed immaculate technique to hook in a loose ball from just inside the box. It was a cracking goal and yet another to go in the bulging goal-of-the-season file.
Palace chucked on Christian Benteke in the closing stages in a sure sign that they planned to throw the kitchen sink at the visitors. But the Hornets weren’t giving this one up, not this time and not on the anniversary of GT’s death. The great man would have loved this one.