Watford provide Palace, Sam Allardyce with a chance to show their progress
Throughout the football season, there are occasions that stand to be a reminder of progress or deterioration, points at which results of the past can shine a light upon performances of the present. Sam Allardyce will see Saturday's match with Watford as one of those opportunities: it's a chance to right the wrongs he felt Crystal Palace committed during his first game in charge at Vicarage Road back in December 2016.
Having just been appointed manager, Allardyce went into that game against Watford with what seemed to be a clear objective: win and kick-start Crystal Palace's recovery. What followed was a match that proved symbolic of Palace's season. A bright opening, a missed opportunity and a defensive lapse, all intertwined with that frail mentality that had seen the club become a relegation contender rather than a midfield powerhouse.
Instead of starting his spell at the club on a positive note, the manager was left frustrated by a Christian Benteke penalty miss, a lack of effort and organisation in the second half and a defensive lapse that saw Sebastian Prodl fouled for the equaliser. A game that Palace had the potential to build upon instead became a stark reminder of just how difficult keeping the club in the Premier League would be.
Fortunately, Palace's form has gradually picked up. Palace now look like a side capable of defending and of working together as a cohesive, organised unit. Results since the end of December haven't all been fantastic but Allardyce's gradual imposition of his style and approach seem to have been adopted. Performances in January were those of a side unconvinced by their new tactics but the two-week break that followed the Stoke City defeat on Feb. 11 gave Allardyce an opportunity to really work with his side -- the first since becoming manager.
Palace returned from the break with consecutive wins and a reformed unit that pressed all over the pitch, especially in the final third. Instead of allowing defenders to pick their passes, Palace's attacking players closed them down. Instead of opposing midfielders having the freedom to dictate play, Palace's centre contracted, starving them of the ball. Palace's defence has become more effective through simplicity. The onus now is on defending throughout the team, supported largely by the recruits secured during the January transfer window.
While the inclusion of Mamadou Sakho on loan from Liverpool took time, due largely to his lack of first-team football in the nine months that preceded his move to Palace, he has been a major upgrade to Palace's defence. In front of him, Luka Milivojevic plays the "midfield enforcer" role perfectly, allowing Jason Puncheon and Yohan Cabaye greater freedom. Both recruits have reinforced Palace's defensive foundations.
However, this shouldn't make the Watford game any less challenging. Palace's home form has been problematic for nearly three seasons, providing the visitors with the perfect opportunity to increase pressure on the home side just by looking to frustrate. In Troy Deeney, the Hornets have a striker capable of making the most of limited opportunities. It should make for a fascinating encounter at Selhurst Park.
Allardyce is unlikely to make any major changes to the side that defeated West Brom nearly a fortnight ago. Wayne Hennessey is likely to start in goal, having kept two clean sheets in a row, with Sakho and James Tomkins likely to form the central pairing again. If there is a defensive concern it will be that Patrick van Aanholt might not have recovered from his ankle injury, with Jeffrey Schlupp the player to deputise. Palace's midfield should stay unchanged. The front three, which performed so well against West Brom, will be tasked with ensuring a repeat performance.
The Watford fixture isn't an opportunity for revenge but a chance for the players to prove that the previous two wins weren't just blips. With more strenuous fixtures to follow, Palace must try to win as many points against teams in the lower half of the table. Doing so will give them a fighting chance of surviving the relegation scrap.
Robert Sutherland is ESPN FC's Crystal Palace blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @RoDuSu.